No Present Like Time revisits the universe of Steph Swainston's debut novel, The Year of Our War. A circle of immortals surrounds the Emperor of the Fourlands, united in their aim to defend against the enemies of the realm. The emperor creates immortals out of men and women who possess the highest attainment of a skill or ability. Each one is unique: one is the best swordsman, one the best archer, one the best mariner, one the strongest, one the fleetest, and so forth. The circle of immortals is not stable, however: anyone can challenge an immortal and try to take his place in the Circle. If the challenger defeats the incumbent, he becomes the immortal, and the loser becomes mortal again.
It is during one of these challenges that No Present Like Time opens. The Swordsman has been challenged. Under the gaze of the Emperor San and the gathered immortals, the two men duel: one fights for the coveted prize of a place in the Circle and immortality; the other struggles not to lose it. Skillfully narrated to show the desperation and exhaustion of the combatants as well as the reaction of the spectators, the duel serves to introduce the narrator/protagonist, the immortal Jant, as he arrives in time to see the climax. The duel's outcome creates the novel's primary antagonist—the defeated Swordsman who, stripped of his place and his immortality, will raise a rebellion later in the story.
Other bits of the plot are subsequently introduced: the announced discovery of a new land that lies across the sea from the Fourlands, which the Emperor wants to establish as part of his domain, and Jant's suspicion that his wife is having an affair with another immortal, triggering his relapse into addiction to the drug Cat. And ever in the background is the ceaseless struggle against the Insects, the horde of unthinking but hostile creatures that are overrunning and destroying civilization.
Jant is sent with several other immortals on a voyage to the new land. On board ship they carry a captive Insect in order to convince the island's inhabitants of the necessity of joining the empire (they know that the island has not yet been invaded and that its citizens believe the creatures to be mere legend). When they arrive at their destination, however, the Insect escapes, killing a number of said citizens in the process, and turning the island's Senate against the Immortals' cause, leaving them to return empty-handed.
No Present Like Time rewards readers with some wonderful invention, and some fantastic beings and places. There is the Shift, the strange, other-dimensional place where Jant finds himself when he overdoses on Cat, where sentient, scholarly sharks can take on human form and mingle, converse, and drive fast cars; and there are the horrific Paperlands, an alien and barren landscape created by the Insects.
Against the pleasure of such creations must be balanced a serious defect: the novel's lack of dramatic impetus. The story has no discernable goal or direction until well past the halfway mark, and Jant himself has no goal other than to carry out the Emperor's directives. The subplot of Jant's struggle with his wife's infidelity fails to generate much interest, as his wife has little presence in the novel. The reader is asked to continue following the story without the pull of suspense, without the need to find out whether a loved or fascinating character will succeed or fail. Some readers, wondering if a goal is ever going to be revealed, might well find it an uphill climb simply to continue reading.
For those who do make it to the conclusion, there is a further reward: some excellent action and an innovative and spectacular maneuver by Jant that is quite satisfying. No Present Like Time won't shake you, or stir pity or terror; it will, however, provide some hours of entertainment in strange lands.
Donna Royston lives and writes in Fairfax, Virginia. Fantasy, with its grand adventure and themes, is her literary love. She has written a novel, The Unmaking, which is in search of a publisher.