Beneath Ceaseless Skies #173, May 14, 2015

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #173, May 14, 2015

Out of the Rose Hills” by Marissa Lingen
The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto” by Bill Powell

Reviewed by Nicky Magas

In Marissa Lingen’s “Out of the Rose Hills,” Tirene’s home is under attack and with her father’s merchant vessels out of port, no one is left nearby to help them. It’s up to Tirene and her companion Yelen, a foreign soldier in the service of her house, to cross over the rose hills and recruit mercenaries from a neighboring city who will hopefully help quell ‘these troubles.’ But the rose hills pose more of an obstacle than just a cloying floral scent and briny drinking water. Something has followed them out of the hills, something as intangible and clingy as the scent of the roses themselves. Something that eats truth.

Out of the Rose Hills” has an epic fantasy feel shrunk down to pocket size. The result is that while the prose is lovely and the intended goal of the story (finding and returning with help to save her family) is fulfilled, the narrative doesn’t feel satisfying. It’s peanut butter spread on a rice cake; it gives me what I need, but somehow leaves me hungrier than I started. The inclusion of the shadow lady is a very nice element, but I didn’t feel like it goes anywhere. She joins the protagonist, annoys her for a time and then travels back with her with the hint that she could also help Tirene. She is never really explained or fleshed out. Neither is the princess prophecy that the people assume Tirene fulfills when she steps out of the rose hills. In the end, I wanted to walk around this world, but Tirene’s focus is single-minded: Go. Find help. Come back. And that she does.

The name says it all in Bill Powell’s “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto.” Whitlock Cartwright is the habitually tardy geometry teacher of Lady Cadence, a relationship he dearly wishes to take to the next level. Lady Cadence, however, won’t be wooed by a man who cannot be punctual. Fortunately, Whitlock is also an inventor, and in a stroke of genius he invents a punctuality machine to help him go back in time and make his appointment with Lady Cadence at the correct hour. While the machine works exactly as it is supposed to, Whitlock soon realizes that messing with the space-time continuum has some nasty and even fatal consequences.

The outrageously tongue-in-cheek “The Punctuality Machine” creates ample humor throughout the narrative, which is written as a libretto and in fact is framed as having been originally performed in an alternative April 1, 1882. The characters are over the top and the plot familiar but nonetheless, Powell makes it memorable in his own way. As the reader watches the threads of distorted time become even more hopelessly tangled we learn to expect the unexpected and hope for the best for the befuddled Whitlock and his coy love interest. Additionally, Powell creates a villain so detestable—even before he vaporizes poor Villager 1—that the reader can’t help but cringe every time the narrative takes a turn in his favor. Witty and entertaining, “The Punctuality Machine” makes the reader wish to see it actually performed on stage, with all its slap-stick humor and burning tweed.