Book Review: The Ministry of Time

I picked up The Ministry of Time when I was in Berkley. It was prominently placed, it had a bold and colorful cover, and I’m a sucker for time travel of any kind. When I brought it up to the counter, the cashier told me that it was one of her recent favorites and really brilliantly realized for being from a debut author. The inside cover promises “an ingeniously imagined, hilarious romp through time, space, and the human heart”.

As a veteran of time travel stories, I think they fall into two basic camps. The first camp is the thinky camp, interested in the time travel elements, the layers of cause and effect, the twists and turns that history or characters might have undergone for want of a nail, branching universes and stable loops, the raw matter of causality itself. The second camp is mostly interested in history, whether that’s alternate history or historical characters. These are stories where the premise is that modern warship gets transported back to Ancient Greece or whatever and then we just do not interact with time travel in any meaningful way until the end of the book, if that. Sometimes (maybe even often) time travel stories straddle these two camps, but when I read a time travel story I usually immediately clock it as being one or the other.

For the first three quarters of its word count, The Ministry of Time is so firmly in the latter camp that I thought it would just stay there. The basic premise is that the titular ministry has pulled people through time and set them up with “bridges” who are essentially civil servants that live with the temporal “expats” and get them acclimated to the near-future modern world. Our protagonist “bridge” is a British-Cambodian woman, while her “expat” is Graham Gore, a member of the doomed Erebus and Terror mission to explore the Northwest passage. He’s very loosely based on a real man about whom so little is known that his character is invented from whole cloth, but there’s quite a bit of historical grounding.

Kate & Leopold was a 2001 film about a modern woman who works at an advertising company (Meg Ryan) and gets embroiled in a love affair with an aristocrat from the late 1800s (Hugh Jackman). It’s a romcom, and I thought about it a lot when reading this book, which turns out to mostly be a slow-burn romance. It hits a lot of the same beats. Gore is a man out of time and we milk this for entertainment value as we watch him acclimate to the modern world in various ways, seeing the things that he loves and the things that puzzle him. He’s also a gentleman from a simpler time, and his nobility stands in contrast to the boorishness of the modern male. A lot of this is stock: I don’t read many romance novels, but “man from the past” is a whole genre, whether he’s come through to the present or the female protagonist has been sent to the past. I am pretty sure that the first book of Outlander is this, but I only watched half of the first season of the TV show.

(The other piece of media this reminded me of was the Norwegian show Beforeigners, which hits the “past is a different country” and “refugees from the past” theme a lot harder, at least for my money.)

The Ministry of Time does all this far better than Kate & Leopold did. Part of this is simply the writing quality, but there’s also at least a little engagement with ideas of colonialism, the horrors of the past, how we assimilate into the dominant culture, and what that means. Gore is well-realized, and our protagonist has a lot of complexity to her, which brings some brushes with identity and living in the wake of someone else’s trauma (particularly because the protagonist, like the author, is mostly white-passing half-Cambodian). It’s just that this isn’t the sort of time travel novel that I like, because it feels like the core premise, traveling through time, gets set to one side while we focus on the relationship between the past and the present, and how fuckable guys from the past are. I appreciate that there’s some depth to the female fantasy on display here, but I don’t find this particular female fantasy all that interesting on its own. When I realized, about twenty pages in, that this was primarily going to be a well-written romance, I could feel my enthusiasm for it waning.

Aside from the romance between these two, which is the largest chunk of the book, we have a few people from other eras. They’re not given nearly enough depth for my taste, but they serve their purpose well enough, and help add another dose of “actually, the past was kind of shit”, which I think any work that is flirting with romanticizing the past needs. The two main ones are Arthur, a gay man from World War I who doesn’t get enough screen time, and Margaret, a lesbian who comes from the 1600s. I think there’s probably a lot to say about identity and queerness, especially because modern notions of these things are not historical, but as with many things, the novel touches lightly on them and then flies off to the next thing like a timid dragonfly.

The best thing about the book, and the reason I kept looking forward to it, is that the prose is really really good. On almost any random page I open up, I can find a passage that delights me. There’s a real art to the metaphor and how it’s employed, and I really enjoyed most of it, even the ones that maybe made me scratch my head a little bit. Things like “sparrows gusted along the curb” or “I looked into Margaret’s face, the sultry peach color of her mouth and her acne glowing with unprinted newness” or “sheepish, excitable expressions, like children caught drawing on the walls”. On the prose level, I was a big fan.

The setting for the novel is near-modern London, a city that’s suffering the effect of climate change, with blisteringly hot days where they can’t do much more than lay on the floor and wait for the heat to pass, and occasional flooding. The ministry itself is a bureaucratic monolith in a way that feels like it’s a piss take, but it doesn’t go terribly far toward saying anything here. There’s a genre that I’m trying to coin a name for called bureaupunk or bureauporn where we focus on huge organizations with matrix management and endless meetings and paper trails, and how that all feels to live with, but this doesn’t quite go to that level, even if it gets close. (The ur-example of this is The Laundry Files, for a future post.)

On the plot level … I hesitate to use the word “sucks”, but I had a lot of problems with it even before we get to the last fourth of the novel where it shifts gears from being a slow romance.

To start with, why are they forcing this man to co-habit with this woman in a way they acknowledge to be scandalous from his perspective? Why didn’t they select a bridge that would ease him into the 21st century? Why co-habitation rather than, say, a bridge having regular check-ins or something? Actually, why is all this time and effort being expended on getting these people to acclimate to the 21st century in the first place? The novel doesn’t really seem to want to engage with this either, and the answers, to the extent we get them, are always pretty vague. Uncharitably, the bulk of the novel is just an excuse plot to get this woman with this man and have them fall in love.

It’s not until the last fourth of the novel that it really starts to pick up steam, at least from a plot perspective. There’s a mole in the ministry, there are mystery people from the future, there are plots and plans firing off, people are revealed to not be quite who they said they were … and I enjoyed this part a lot less, in spite of it being ostensibly more toward the type of thinky time travel fiction I’m a fan of. There are two major reveals, and I didn’t think that either of them landed, in part because of how weakly they tied into the thing that the novel had mostly been about, which is this central romantic conflict. It’s also in this last fourth of the novel that it becomes a type one time travel story instead of a type two one, but the time travel mechanics are never explained, it never matters, and the whole story is worse for it. There’s something that a lot of time travel stories sometimes do where they say “well it’s time travel, it’s confusing, no one really knows” and I fucking despise it because it’s lazy shitty writing. Even if you don’t have perfectly consistent rules that make sense on a physics level, you need to have rules that make sense on a narrative level, and usually the kinds of authors who write passages like that don’t have either.

Prose aside, I think I didn’t like this book. I like some of the stock time travel stuff, like a man from the past discovering Spotify, and a woman from the present reveling in a man from the past. I thought the sentence level stuff was great. I thought that some of the recurrent themes of identity and running from the past were interesting, especially the stuff about power dynamics and fitting in with the governmental overstructure … but I didn’t feel like the novel hit all that hard, aside from a single passage midway through the book. The author has some thoughts on growing up with this Cambodian heritage, but I don’t think I necessarily got all that much understanding on top of what I could have gotten from trying to write a character like that myself. I got the sense that the author was putting a lot of herself into the novel, sometimes to a degree that felt embarrassing to read, in a way that the novel is explicit about. Sometimes that was embarrassing in a good way, raw and real, and other times it was just confusing, elements of her life put onto the page without enough introspection or background to understand it.

The romance is good and compelling though, I’ll give it that. If you like romances, and don’t really care about time travel, you might like it.

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Book Review: The Ministry of Time

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