RogerBW's Blog

The Hellfire Rebellion, Simon Hawke 27 October 2023

1990 SF, tenth of its series. It's 1765 in Boston, and the Sons of Liberty are being threatened by a headless horseman.

It's frustrating. If we hadn't previously established that a whole bunch of novels (Ivanhoe, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Prisoner of Zenda, etc.) are literally true in this world's history, it would be clear from the start that someone producing an actual headless horseman in pre-revolutionary America must be trying to get the attention of time travellers. And in fact that is what's happening. But we have established that, and nobody ever mentions Washington Irving or his short story from 1820 (set, in any case, in 1790), so clearly those things don't exist in their world; our heroes just think "this is obviously meant to look supernatural, therefore it's a time traveller". But if that's the case, why does the series' big villain come up with this specific gimmick, and why does he expect it to work? Cpincidence?

Hawke is back to his infodumping habits too, with chapters of summary of the situation leading up to the revolt. Well, I guess it helps bulk up the word count, but I thought that this was the kind of thing Americans (the primary audience for the book) got at school. In between that, there are infodumps on the events of the series so far. And once in a while we get some actual events in te current story; Drakov the villain sets up a "Hellfire Club" to be the pro-British anonymous counterpart to the anonymous Sons of Liberty (and apparently has no trouble recruiting for his masked orgies among the petits-bourgeois of Boston, even though the original Hellfire Clubs were careful to stick to the sort of aristocracy who were not offended by mocking the established order). But is he using them to confound the revolution, or…?

Unfortunately by this point in the series all we've really got left for villainous motivation is "he's mad, and trying to split the timelines again even though there's nothing like a consensus on what will happen as a result and there's no obvious way any of the outcomes would actually lead to his goals".

(And while being fair I didn't spot this at the time either, there's a trick to time travel stories that I picked up from Jodi Taylor: there's no reason why any particular bunch of time-travellers met in the past should be from the "now" of the current narrative. Why aren't there still TIA guys in 1765 from back when the TIA was a separate agency rather than part of the Time Corps? Observers from when they still used chronoplates rather than warp discs? Timekeepers from before that organisation was destroyed back in the early books? Or indeed people from the future of the Time Corps…)

Barbara Hambly would do a rather better job of this eve-of-warfare setting a few years later in The Ninth Daughter (though it also suffers from infodumping).

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See also:
The Ninth Daughter, Barbara Hamilton

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