As you know from reading my past posts (and if you’ve ever talked to me at the Circulation Desk), I’m a big fan of time travel books. And, while there are all kinds of interesting things that can occur in a book about time travel, I have to admit that there are a few tropes that most of the books have in common: someone goes back in time, through mechanical or other means, meets with historical figures (famous or not), and either tries to change the past or tries NOT to change the past. Every now and then, though, a time travel book comes along that ignores all those conventions and makes its own rules. Such a book is Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, which just came out this month.
The premise is unique: in Great Britain in 1348, the Black Death is ravaging the country. Two brothers, John and William, are suffering from the Plague and know they’re about to die. In fact, they have exactly six days to live when they are given a wonderful if dangerous choice: either they can go home and spend their last days waiting to die in their own time, OR they can spread out those last six days, living each one 99 years after the last one, hoping to find a cure before their last day ends.
Now, wouldn’t you want to read this book just on that description alone? Aren’t you thinking about whether you would take that deal or not? Consider: each day would take you farther and farther into the future, nearly a century at a time, so you would have more and more trouble understanding what’s going on, what people are doing and saying (consider how much language changes over the centuries), how to navigate the world. And at the same time, consider how much medicine, for instance, has changed over the centuries, and what the odds are that something that might have been deadly and incurable in your time might well turn into something easily treated a few hundred years from now.
Of course the brothers take the jumping-through-time option, and their experiences as they jump farther and farther into the future are revelations to them, even as they find it more and more difficult just to understand what is happening around them. Their basic assumptions about life and the universe are irrevocably challenged, and they become more and more outcast in the worlds in which they find themselves. The bigger question for them personally, though, is whether they will in fact find a cure before their last day runs out.
Whether or not you’re a fan of time travel books (and by the way, this would count as a time travel book for the Field Library Reading Challenge), the notion of seeing different eras through the eyes of people from an earlier time is intriguing, and the literal race against time in Outcasts of Time should make for a fascinating read.