Island in the Sea of Time sounded good to me. I love alternate history and speculative fiction. What could be better than a book that blended both in an innovative way, incorporating some science fiction into the mix? Unfortunately, despite some good aspects, Island in the Sea of Time fell flat for me.
Let’s start off with the good. I liked the idea of an entire island of people from our own time being suddenly tossed into the far past. What challenges they would face? How would they meet the obstacles facing them? A fantastic plot, in my opinion.
I also delighted in the anthropological aspects Stirling put in. Linguistics is an interest of mine, so I found some of the exposition language structure and evolution absolutely fascinating. His conjectures on how various cultures functioned and how they would react to visitors from today’s world were obviously well-researched, at least on the European side.
The cultural part that I disliked, however, was the heavy focus on building or maintaining technological conveniences, creating weapons, military training, and warfare. I just wanted to skip over the pages that dealt with this stuff, and that’s bad, since it makes up about half the book. Many (and I mean many) of the characters have military training, which I found too convenient to be believable. This leads me to my next issue with the book.
The residents of Nantucket are far too accepting of their situation. There are a couple of freak-outs in the book, as well as allusions to points of crises within individuals. I, however, find it difficult to believe that there wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the time shift. There are off-hand comments about suicide, but they felt like they were obligatory mentions so that Stirling could get on with the story. We follow no character who has such inclinations; this probably would have made Island in the Sea of Time more compelling, more human on an emotional level.
Character abilities and skills also felt too well-distributed to reflect reality. A Coast Guard ship just happens to get trapped in the time shift, so we have a military force with at least one fighting ship, plenty of trained soldiers, and modern weapons. There’s the woman who runs the greenhouse, so we have someone who knows how to grow crops and can teach others how to do so. We have a librarian who is apparently so freaking talented that she can keep everyone apprised of the information they need to perform their jobs. We have a historian with interests in the time period the island has been thrust into, as well as a working knowledge of linguistics. We have an astronomer, who has the ability to communicate with the English tribes because she also can speak a Baltic language that is similar to proto-Indo-European. We have a captain who is, apparently, God’s gift to both military strategy and tactics. And we have a native woman who is gifted in so many ways that it makes suspension of disbelief very difficult. On top of that, we lose exactly one of the main cast of characters. He doesn’t happen to be a central character, either; we probably follow him about a half-dozen times, whereas most of the other characters get approximately thirty to forty sections scattered throughout the book. That smacks of the unreal to me.
Also unfortunate, in my opinion, Stirling focused on the prehistoric British inhabitants, which was baffling to me, seeing as the island tossed back in time was Nantucket. We are given very little information about the Native Americans of the area; he allows us to read about their first encounter, and then leaves them almost completely. This struck me as strange; why toss away a fascinating people who could help the Nantucketers with farming, gathering and the like — as well as trading — in favor of the long sea voyage and constant skirmishes in England?
The other aspect of this is, when we are allowed to view one extended encounter with Central American natives, they are portrayed in a horribly brutal light. While this might be accurate, some of the actions taken by the Olmecs were horribly graphic — graphic enough to cause me to have a nightmare about one particular scene. It freaked me out to no end, and also felt unfair to the indigenous Americans. Why do they get to experience such a characterization, while the European peoples encountered are as nuanced as the Nantucket residents?
Based on the comments by Harry Turtledove and Robert J. Sawyer, I thought I was in for a spectacular read. I’m saddened to find that wasn’t so. A more Nantucket-based, psychologically sensitive book would have been fascinating. Since this is one in a series of books, many of the battles could have waited. As it is, Island in the Sea of Time leaves the reader with a dry book about martial history, martial tactics, and flat characters.