20 years ago, three boys went on an ill-fated school trip to Rome. One lost an eye. One lost his only friend. One lost himself. Now all three are back in the newly-rebuilt capital of the European Confederacy, and their schoolboy feud will be nothing next to the ancient vengeance taking shape.
Patrick Edwards give us a pessimistic view of the immediate future in which Brexit is the first pebble in an avalanche of global disasters: political, climatic, economic, geological. The world goes quietly to hell in a handcart. Borders slam closed and countries focus inwards. Britain drifts ever further to the right and ever further down the socioeconomic index, comforting itself that the disintegrating EU has it worse. Until one day, it doesn’t.
We pick up the threads after 30 years of self-imposed isolation, festering in a Daily Mail dystopia (and everything about this depiction of our future hurts, frankly; reading fiction that plays to my worst fears doesn’t help, even when it’s smartly done). Britain is tentatively re-engaging with a European Confederacy risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the crumbled EU. For civil servant Lindon Banks, it means a trip to the ancient city he last saw on a disastrous school trip in which his best friend disappeared and his nemesis lost an eye.
His one-time tormentor is now his boss. Foreign Secretary Easter (literally and metaphorically one-eyed) is still a bully, but considerably more influential – and more dangerous. Thankfully, he leaves the real work to men with thicker skin and better attention spans. Banks has a measure of safety as Easter’s private secretary, so long as he hides his growing affection for his European opposite number and his unexpected admiration for what the Confederacy has achieved. The British position is to look firmly down one’s privately-educated nose, sneering at European decadence, mistrustful of Johnny Foreigner.
But Banks can’t help but be impressed. The new European capital is a gleaming modern city around a carefully-preserved historic heart, casually awash with technology an Englishman can only dream of. He’s helplessly attracted to his European counterpart, clever, compassionate Mariko, quietly desperate to impress her – and snarled up in his growing sense of inferiority. Does she really respect him or is she trying to manipulate him in service to some shadowy European agenda? It’s a touching portrait of a middle-aged man awakening to the sense that life still has possibilities to offer, but held back by his own baggage.
But Echo Cycle is more than a political thriller with a romantic subplot. Walking home, Banks and Mariko trip over his long-lost school friend Winston Monk, presumed dead for the past twenty years. Starving and filthy, it’s clear Monk has been living on the streets: but he claims to have fallen through time and been living in the first century AD. He slowly relates a story of slavery, gladiators, emperors and unexpected romance – a perfect timeslip potboiler, all the less believable for ticking so many boxes – as Banks tries to reintegrate him into modern society and safeguard him from Easter’s twenty-year vendetta.
As blood pressures rise and disaster looms, the various threads weave together into a tense narrative with so many developments that I wondered near the end how Edwards could possibly wrap everything up. It’s to his credit that he not only manages, he does so in a very satisfying manner. I tip my hat to him: the narrative engaged me from its scornful opening lines to its emotional closing scene, full of vibrant descriptions that evoke atmosphere right down to texture and scent (even when you wish it wouldn’t).
I liked that Edwards kept me guessing about exactly who was up to what until the final act. Ambiguity is central to many of the relationships: what Mariko wants from Banks (although this is the least ambiguous, unless you’re Banks); what instructions Easter is acting on; whether Monk is mad, lying or entirely genuine; not to mention almost everything about Sporus and his arts.
It’s worth noting that Echo Cycle is a very androcentric tale: those hoping for more than one female character will be left disappointed. The entire British delegation and most of imperial Rome are male (…and Sporus, who I read as genderqueer or male); while this feels deliberate rather than an oversight, I’d have liked the narrative to have acknowledged the misogyny it implied. That said, it does feel consistent with the rest of the world-building and I enjoyed the characters enough that it didn’t really bother me.
However, I’m always slightly uncomfortable (SUPER SPOILERY – mouse over to read) when one of the only queer characters is the villain (although I feel I should say a villain given the number of straight cis monsters in the supporting cast). While we get Monk’s transformation from awkward, angry outcast to self-possessed, dangerous man and ultimately our hero, it also flirts with tragic gay territory – which made me all the more grateful for the prologue.
Still, I don’t hold this against Echo Cycle. I inhaled it over a couple of days, largely slowed down by the unavoidable need to work (tch). It’s a thrilling read, and no matter how cynical a vision of post-Brexit Britain Patrick Edwards paints, I appreciated his relentless hope for a brighter European future. While I haven’t (yet) read his debut, Ruin’s Wake, on the strength of Echo Cycle (not to mention the tantalising hints about his next project) I suspect I’ll be reading – and cheerleading – everything he writes from now on.
I received a free copy from Titan Books in exchange for an honest review.
Check back in on Tuesday for an interview with Patrick Edwards.