The Outcasts of Time is the fourth fictional work by Ian Mortimer, a historian best known for his popular ‘Time Traveller’s Guides’, and the first under his own name (he’s previously written historical fiction under the pen name James Forrester). Here he sculpts a tale that follows self-flagellating protagonist John of Wrayment, a humble stonemason from southwest England, as he time-travels across 594 years on a serpentine quest for redemption.
Beginning his journey in 1348, with England in the clutches of the Black Death, Wrayment, on the verge of falling to the disease, is offered the opportunity to seek redemption for knowingly thrusting an orphaned and diseased infant into the bosom of an ignorant wet nurse. As God spoke to Abraham from atop the mountain, so a greater power (‘a man’s voice, not unlike my own’) challenges Wrayment: he can either return home and risk infecting his beloved wife and children or live out his life travelling through time. So off Wrayment goes, hurtling through the centuries, pelting past the accession of England’s first female monarch, the discovery of America, the invention of pianos, pendulum clocks, photography, motor vehicles and the cinema and more – each development simultaneously surprising and confusing him.
Mortimer’s attention to detail is remarkable. Wrayment is thrown forward ninety-nine years every day, initially alongside his lascivious brother William. The latter’s death signals a turn in events: Wrayment is forced to examine those around him more closely, and his friendship with a priest marks a shift from an insular man to one who is more curious. Mortimer handles time travel in such a way that it becomes almost irrelevant, quietly fading into the background as morally contentious issues about good and evil and the Last Judgment take centre stage. Here, human nature is something that can be cultivated, formed and reformed, as we tread the tangled paths of right and wrong.
‘History is only and always the story of human nature in action,’ says Niccolò Machiavelli in Sarah Dunant’s latest offering, In the Name of the Family: several hundred pages of politics, love affairs, war, murder and revenge, focusing on Renaissance Italy’s most famous political figure and the Borgia family. Dunant shrewdly explores human vice and virtue as she charts a godless society orbiting around Pope Alexander VI and his daughter Lucrezia. God’s most favoured man on earth and his court become puppets to Fortune, a ‘wayward goddess’, a ‘magnificent strumpet’, a ‘captivating bed-fellow’, dancing with powerful men as the Republic teeters on the edge of collapse.
In the Name of the Family contains multiple characters and plots, all of which are thoroughly researched and slickly interwoven. At times the politics become overcomplicated, but this is a symptom of Dunant’s otherwise admirable fastidiousness. The tales of Lucrezia, Cesare, Machiavelli and their accomplices have always been extraordinarily entertaining. Here, as in The Outcasts of Time, a study of human beings lurks beneath it all: their obligations to themselves and their duty to others, and the question of which has more pull. Kindness, gentleness and love are buried underneath frivolity and Dunant makes her reader work to find the softer and more fragile aspects of human nature. Surprisingly, they are revealed through two less significant characters: Lucrezia’s husband Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, and her outcast maid Catrinella. Overall Dunant’s writing is fast-paced, lusty, illustrative and exciting, as she flits from character to character, always maintaining an impartial but dignified third-person delivery.
Another exciting novel set around a historical court is M G Sinclair’s debut, The Cardinal’s Man. His background is France under King Louis XIII, ‘heir of Clovis and Charlemagne, chosen by God to command the realm’, and his right-hand man, Cardinal Richelieu.
The brilliance of The Cardinal’s Man lies in Sinclair’s protagonist, provincial French dwarf Sebastian Morra, who is based on a real person about whom very little is known. Morra is unsurprisingly subject to a lot of abuse: ‘nobody cares what you think, little man, you’re nothing. Something that should never have been born.’ In spite of the poisonous remarks thrown his way, Morra shows his strength of character. His story is about the importance of quick wits and determination in a volatile world, where ‘all it takes is a poorly chosen word, a change of heart, even plain boredom – and I’ll be gone’.
The Cardinal’s Man is a rags-to-riches tale, complete with the stereotypical rites of passage: social ostracism, flight, begging, arrival at court, the rise to favour and so on. The characters include the ‘pointlessly handsome’ and absurdly spoiled Marquis de Cinq-Mars, who is demented in his determination to destroy both Sebastian and Richelieu, and a femme fatale, the unpleasant and vicious Duchesse de Chevreuse. The framework for the plot is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. It’s a fast-paced, enjoyable and descriptive story with familiar characters and themes.