Contrary to popular opinion, I have enjoyed but not been a flag-waving fanatic of Ian McDonald’s recent novels. The Dervish House, the Luna books thus far, and the Everness trilogy all received accolades and praise unlike any work from McDonald’s first three decades as a writer. But there is the extremely strong impression it’s only because these books are the most mainstream of McDonald’s oeuvre—like he gave up trying to be original and just produced an abstraction of what the market wanted. Gone is the gonzo imagination of Out on Blue Six. Absent is the Walt Whitman approach to Hearts, Hands and Voices. Nowhere is the magic realism and charm of Desolation Road. Instead, the reader is given relatively familiar characters, setups, and straight-forward prose combined in very competent fashion—not a criticism, just an observation. Thus when learning McDonald had been commissioned to write a novella for Tor.com, my heart sank further: more standard, market stuff. Having now read Time Was, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s far too early to say McDonald is back, but damn did he surprise with what may be the most affecting, sweeping story of his career.
I suppose Time Was is technically a frame story, though it should be known that the boundaries between the frame and its content are often blurred, and the frame itself occupies the majority of space. The novella opens in the very-near-future with rare book seller Emmet Leigh searching the contents of a London dumpster for potential literary gold. Coming across a semi-anonymous book of poetry, he takes a chance and picks it up. Opening the leather-bound volume, a love letter falls out. Written by one Tom Chappell to a Ben Seligman, the pair opine separation even as the exigencies of WWII press close. Intrigued, Leigh begins digging deeper into the history of the two men, and discovers more than he could ever have imagined.