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Who Needs Cleopatra?
Reverb paperback £7.99
review by David Hebblethwaite
In the not-too-distant future, the inventor of time travel (known only as 'N') is visited by three beautiful, but dangerous-looking, women from the Time Police. They claim to be historians, wishing to record for posterity the story of N's journeys through time with his (now deceased) travelling companion, Bertie. N isn't fooled by this ("If these women worked in the records department, then I felt sorry for any filing cabinets which happened to get in their way"), but has no option other than to play along for the time being. What follows is the tale of a romp through history, with all the twists and turns you'd expect (and some you wouldn't). However...
I've been mightily impressed with some of Steve Redwood's short fiction, but, sadly, Who Needs Cleopatra? falls some way short of that standard. This comic novel divides into two distinct sections, the first of which comprises N's accounts of his travels in the past, and the reactions of the women to those accounts. N's journeys were funded by a company called Chronotech, aiming to solve various historical mysteries (such as the identity of the Mona Lisa, or how Rasputin actually died) and bring back filmed evidence for broadcast on television, and Chronotech's president insisted that his son Bertie should go along - which N was none too happy about.
The journeys themselves are each entertaining enough; the trouble is, some of the humour grates. Particularly annoying are the two tramps N meets in every period, and who refuse to give a straight answer to even the simplest question for no good reason. Redwood knows what he's doing, because even N finds the pair irritating; and there's some suggestion of their identity later in the novel - but that doesn't stop them being a pain in the neck.
N himself is also rather obnoxious (again, deliberately so), but he can be funny, whether through observational humour (for instance, "The heckler found himself knocked... to the back of the crowd, where he was righteously stamped on: ours was a peaceful society then, and we wanted to keep it that way"), or the way he constantly denies his own selfishness ("What greater proof of friendship could I have shown than to allow [Bertie] the honour of sacrificing himself for me?"). However, here too, Redwood over-eggs the pudding: for example, N frequently cracks jokes about how much Bertie smells. This can be funny once, maybe a few times if it's done inventively; but Redwood makes the joke too often, and it loses its impact.
After N finishes recounting his travels, the book changes tack, and another problem comes to light, that of pacing. The three women reveal that (as N suspected) they aren't Time Police historians at all; but N has his own surprises to spring. The novel becomes a whirlwind of action and exposition that tries to squeeze too much into too little space. Now, to be fair on the author, he did plan a sequel to Who Needs Cleopatra? (now to be left unwritten?), which would have expanded on the events of the second half. But, of course, knowing this doesn't lessen the problems evident in the one novel we do have. It's a shame, because a sequel would have been interesting, and the two halves of the present volume don't quite sit comfortably together. Who Needs Cleopatra? has its moments, but it's not nearly as good as some of Steve Redwood's other work - and that is the biggest disappointment of all.
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