Charlie Horologe’s mother can’t remember his name. People often forget him seconds after they’ve seen him. When he scores the highest in the high jump on the track and field team, they give the medal to the kid who came in second. The only people who seem to remember him consistently are his dad and his aunt Sophie, who travel together for their work and only show up about twice a year, usually with an armload of history books for Charlie and a quiz on the contents.
This is the opening of Andy Gavin’s YA time-travel fantasy Untimed. Despite these problems, which seem kind of severe (how did his mother remember to feed him and check on him when he was a baby?), Charlie is cheerful and well-adjusted, even when a clockwork android tries to murder him outside of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. When the android creates a temporal hole beneath its feet, Charlie follows it through, landing in London in 1725. He quickly becomes embroiled in a plot involving Ben Franklin and Yvaine, a young Scots woman with a baby and a talent for time-travel herself.
Yvaine quickly explains the time-travel rules to Charlie: males can only travel “down-time,” or into the past, while females can only travel up-time. Thus, they travel in pairs. The universe carefully changes a time traveler’s clothing and personal effects into contemporary items, so that Charlie’s iPhone becomes a leather-bound ledger when he jumps into London. The universe even provides what Yvaine calls “ghosts,” pale copies of the travelers who continue any activity the travelers might have interrupted when they jump. The universe seems remarkably concerned about time-travelers, even keeping them from killing someone, since it might change the future. This almost seems like sentience but it is never explained. Imagine someone building a set for Shakespeare in the park. For the backdrop, they might tack up a sheet of fabric and paint a tree on it… not trying to create a world, just enough of a platform to support the story on stage. That’s how the world-building feels here. These are not the details of a realistic world; these are the rules and obstacles that will make the adventure exciting.
The adventure is exciting. In 1725, Donnie the Dancer is a truly plausible villain. The clockwork people, or Tick-Tocks as Yvaine calls them, are scary and definitely have an agenda. The leaps back and forth through time, especially once Charlie’s dad and Aunt Sophie show up, are fast-paced and action-packed. As you expect, Charlie’s first time leap wreaks catastrophic changes on his “present,” requiring him to go back in time and try to correct things, even though his dad argues with him that they are not supposed to. Dad and Sophie spend their time-jaunts tracking down the mysterious writings of an early time traveler called The Regulator. The reason for this endeavor is not explained. The Tick-Tocks’ weakness is just silly, but it allows for good action sequences, including a wild plan at a banquet that includes cages, dancing girls, big cats and Leyden jars. It’s like science class in Las Vegas.
The book is illustrated by Dave Phillips, but I didn’t think the pictures added much to the book. The style was very different from my own mental images of the scenes, and the book really didn’t need illustrations.
Untimed is plenty of fun, if not very deep. While I would have liked a little more emotional depth and some thought given to both the world-building and the consequences of actions, Untimed is a fun, fast read with a pair of wise-cracking main characters and fine action sequences. It’s a good way to spend a few hours. There are sexual themes discussed, mostly for humor (although Charlie and Yvaine do have sex and Charlie doesn’t even consider the possibility of pregnancy or disease for either of them). Charlie gets drunk several times – in 1725, most people didn’t drink water, especially not in the middle of a city. A major character is a lesbian and that is presented positively. For adolescent boy readers, Yvaine and Sophie both represent strong but realistic female characters, which is a pleasant bonus. The book’s a little thin in spots, but still a good read.