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The Bones of Time by Kathleen Ann Goonan (HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 382 pages, paperback; published 17 May 1999.)

The Bones of Time opens with two tragic losses and ends in too much of a wham-bam hurry.

The prologue is set in 1887, as Kaiulani Cleghorn, the last princess of Hawaii, witnesses the slow death of her mother, who has taken to her bed as if she has simply lost the will to live -- an affliction that was apparently common at the time of the American annexation of the islands. A holy man, a kahuna, has cursed her mother, and now he curses Kaiulani, too: to a visionary talent that will have repercussions 150 years later.

The story jumps to the 2030s, when Lynn Oshima, daughter of the head of the powerful and inevitably sinister corporation Interspace, miscarries the baby whose father she had selected from a catalogue.

Recovering, Lynn is given the chance to fly to Hong Kong to collect a sample of Chairman Mao's genetic material. It's tempting -- she already has Lenin, Indira Ghandi, Teddy Roosevelt and a job lot of ayatollahs in her collection -- but it's risky, too. Anything her brothers arrange for her to do is likely to be risky. And usually illegal.

The third strand in The Bones of Time tells the story of Cen Kalakaua, a genius mathematician haunted by visions of Princess Kaiulani, driven by his apparent insanity to work on what he calls the Kaiulani Proofs: a theory of time and space that has very practical applications. Cen's theories tackle a lot of the problems Interspace has set itself in its goal of colonising the stars and they will, like any sinister corporation from 1980s/1990s sf, stop at nothing to make use of Cen and his work.

You might gather by now that The Bones of Time is a strange mix: Goonan uses a lot of now-familiar props (the Sinister Corporation, nanotech, chaos theory), hints of Newy Agey mysticism (most of which she at least tries to rationalise away with Cen's science) and efficient multi-stranded plotting to produce what is ultimately a gripping novel of ideas.

Goonan is a good writer -- her Hawaii is vivid, her characters alive and engaging -- but she's never quite at home in The Bones of Time.

The Bones of Time is a thriller as well as a novel of ideas, yet Goonan finds it hard to resist the urge to explain at the earliest opportunity, rather than trusting the reader to pick up the necessary theory and background along the way. This makes the story slow to get going, the narrative lop-sided: over-burdened at the start, too helter-skelter towards the close.

The final sequences are a headlong rush towards the Big Conclusion, where multiple plot strands are tied up (or left dangling), many questions are hastily answered, and the protagonists' personal resolutions are hurried, compressed, not given space to breathe.

The Bones of Time is a good and entertaining novel, but if Goonan would just relax and trust her obvious talent she would be capable of far more.

Review by Nick Gifford.


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© Nick Gifford 26 June 1999