A Tale of Time City is a book about time travel, which is a concept I generally like in books and movies, but also hesitate to read/watch because time travel stories tend to deal with the past a lot, and I find it hard to get into historical fiction. So it took me a long while to start on this book, even though I don’t remember ever not liking it, and of course, the moment I started I thought to myself, I love this book, why did I wait so long to re-read this?
The setting is quite different from DWJ’s other books, although it starts in a familiar enough fashion – with a girl named Vivian Smith who is being evacuated from the city at the beginning of WWII. She was rather anxious, with good reason – she had never met the cousin she was supposed to live with, and there were so many Smiths that she was scared that they might get the wrong one. And as it turned out, someone did get the wrong Smith – two boys, Jonathan and Sam, kidnapped Vivian on the account of her name, thinking that she was the Time Lady in disguise.
The boys came from a place called Time City, which is a city outside of time. The concept of Time City really fascinated me when I was younger, and even now, it’s one of the “otherworlds” that I’d like to see the most. The city depended on History being more or less stable, and was beginning to fall apart. Thinking that it had to do with the Time Lady (a figure from their city’s legends) going rogue, and thinking that Vivian was her, they whisked her to Time City. Of course, she proved that she was just a regular girl, but by then they couldn’t send her back without being found out, so they passed her off as their cousin while they tried to figure things out.
As much as I loved the idea of Time City (and butter pies!), my favourite thing about the book would be the children. They were just so real. Jonathan was lordly and entitled and altogether annoying but sincere. Vivian wasn’t smart or brave or special in any way, but she rallied spectacularly well considering her situation, which makes her one of my favourite female characters. And as for Sam, I could just imagine how left out he must’ve felt, and really, was just a kid. I liked how their friendship grew, and the way they bickered and worked together. And I liked the relationships they had with their parents (except for Vivian, whose parents aren’t in the book), which also felt very real. The moment when Jonathan’s father – an important authority figure in the city – was being silly and enjoying it, and Jonathan was feeling embarrassed, it’s just so DWJ all over, the way she writes adults as regular people too, and how it’s a fact that might disappoint children to learn.
Another thing I like from this book are the ghosts – not ghosts as in horror/fantasy fiction, but more like apparitions or imprints of people made over time due to routine (them doing the same things a lot of times) or them doing something so important that it leaves a mark. I guess the idea of doing something so important, or doing something so many times, that you leave an imprint that can be viewed throughout the ages, makes me feel more awed than the idea of regular ghosts. And there’s the idea of time as something that goes in a cycle that needs to be renewed, I liked that a lot.
Like many of DWJ’s books, the ending is kind of chaotic and messy, which I’ve never really minded or paid much attention to until this I started on my rereads. I still don’t mind them – in fact, I think I love the way everything seems to come together at once in DWJ’s books, in a way that’s satisfying in some ways, and yet not so much in others, and you get the feeling of a new beginning rather than an ending, which may be frustrating when there aren’t sequels, but feels truer to me than a normal happy ending. Anyway, I definitely find myself paying more attention to the endings now!
Note: The recent Firebird (US) edition of the book comes with an introduction by Ursula Le Guin! Unfortunately, that’s not the edition I have…