Tempus by Janet Morris
The full name of this novel is Tempus with his Right-Side Companion Niko.
I have a doggo named Niko and was inordinately excited by what was sure to be a mental image of my little fluff-ball rampaging and questing.
This might be one of the very few times where my experience would have been significantly behooved by actually reading the damn back copy.
Tempus opens on Niko—Yay!—returning home—actually, wait, scratch that. Tempus opens on an infodump describing two contradictory kingdoms in this world. This description eventually grows to incorporate Niko, but on the whole it mostly felt like a prologue and I had this overwhelming feeling like I walked into the second or third book in a series.
To make sure I wasn’t being foolish, I pulled Tempus up on Goodreads. It said it was part of a series called Thieves’ World, but it didn’t give a number. Imagining this was like Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance where some books are absolutely standalone, I kept reading.
I mean, Demon Drums was standalone—and not even part of a greater fictional universe—but felt like a sequel.
So Niko returns home and is weary from the world. He stresses, rakes a rock-garden, and thinks. After nine pages a mentor-figure shows up and utters the first dialogue of the book.
At this point it felt like the prologue ends and the book starts—and seriously tries to make up for lost time with intense over-writing absolutely dedicated to giving every thing at least one color.
The golden clouds blew away on a fierce grey wind.
White seals came and cavorted in the suddenly glasslike sea. Sworded mentor-fish leaped purple on her left and right. Azure porpoises caressed her in amorous play.
The moon shouldered its way before the cinnabar sun. The amber sea darkened; rolled ocher; sienna; vermillion-black.
And then this gem. (Pun slightly intended?)
His brows were drawn over diamond eyes that etched their message on her soul.
I, very obviously, do not like this sort of writing. I kept reading, though, because I sensed a deep world and I figured that books with a good world and a good plot lay off the purple (heh) prose when the stakes are raised.
Then I hit an intellectual stumbling block.
A little bit of backstory: in the not-prologue-prologue, a rival kingdom was described as representing all that was dark and evil and out of control. The story-telling seems to support this. Niko is haunted by Aškelon, the spirit ruler of this kingdom and is terrified of sleep as his dreams have become corrupted.
Okay, so Niko is somehow magically shown events that happen off-screen. The first scene shows the perhaps too-far lengths a woman goes to to kill Aškelon. And as Niko watches Aškelon die in this vision, he realizes that—at least in that moment—Aškelon isn’t a villain. The woman who killed him is the villain.
I had to pause at this. If that woman stepped over the line to learn how to kill a bad guy, then yeah, it’s hard to categorize her as a good guy. But that does nothing to negate the badness of the guy she’s killing. A bad person killing another bad person doesn’t magically render anyone not a bad person.
If the point of this exercise it to show the peril of selling your proverbial soul to achieve something you perceive of as ‘good,’ then the focus should be on the woman—not Aškelon.
The, uh, icky-feeling I got from that scene continued. A wise mentor-figure postulates
There are no right or wrong ideologies, only ideologues; no good and evil sides, only good and evil people. Eradication of a race is rightly termed genocide, and bigots in all disguises become worse than what they hate.
Intellectually, I disagree with this on a really strong level, but it’s not an uncommon theme in fantasy: extremism is the only true evil. I can get past that. The line that really gets me, though is bigots in all disguises become worse than what they hate. That combined with the idea that Aškelon wasn’t a villain and the notion that there are no right or wrong ideologies … somehow it just felt like the book was one step away from condemning antifa as being just as bad as fascists. Maybe I’m just touchy, but I got serious vibes that seemed squicky.
I wasn’t enthusiastic about continuing, but I did. When the vision of the woman killing Aškelon ends, a new vision begins: one about Niko’s commander, Tempus. It’s essentially a flashback and I felt wholly lost, like the author expected me to know—or care—more about the world than I could/would given what was written. At this point we’ve also spent way more time in flashbacks than in the present.
Out of sheer bafflement, I turned to Goodreads reviews and learned that yes, Tempus is a part of a the Thieves’ World. More than that, though, it’s a book of, essentially, short stories giving fans of Niko, Tempus, the world at large, etc, a chance to dive deep and nerd out on some previous unexplored facets of the canon. The book will be nothing but flashbacks.
Flipping to the back cover, I realized that the final paragraph explains this, but after so many books being ruined by my expectations of what should happen, I’ve started largely ignoring the back copy.
So there we are. As a person previously uninitiated in Thieves’ World, I am not the intended audience for this book. Good to know. I gotta admit, though, I wasn’t impressed in general. Early in my reading, I jotted down in my notebook:
If you like being told what people are thinking and long stretches of high-level descriptions of things that have happened already, have I got the book for you.
I would be hesitant to say this, for fear that my un-appreciation stems mostly from being out of my element, but a review I stumbled across while trying to figure out why the fuck I didn’t know anything they were talking about seemed to corroborate my views:
It was nice to see some of the characters again. But it also made me remember why I abandoned the series. A high percentage of [Thieve's World] books consists of world-building and info-dumping, which makes it read like a history lesson. It's understandable - many different writers have contributed to the series over the years, so in order to keep some sort of continuity despite the different styles and approaches, you need to reference past events.
Still, […] I never felt truly immersed. As likable as some of the characters are, they are difficult to relate to. Too much is told instead of being showed. The focus is too much on their abilities, and too little on their personality, their motives, their emotions.
With that in mind, I’m going to step back from Tempus.
Cover art by Gary Ruddell: