Time-travel is always a tricky thing, and sometimes the use of an alternate reality (or alternate history) can do as much to accentuate the problems as it can to provide a safe path for the story to take. What I mean is that it is often relied upon as a crutch or an easy-out, bypassing all the paradoxical complexities. Where it works best - and that is where The Forever Engine finds itself - is when the crutch is turned on itself, using time travel as the excuse to explore the alternate reality.
Frank Chadwick is a name that may be familiar to some readers, and probably more gamers. He was one of the originators of the modern steampunk genre with Space 1889, and this novel is his opportunity to play out the world he helped to create.
Jack Fargo, our hero, is a modern-day history professor, called back by the Army to assist with a top-secret science experiment. An accident in London catapults him back in time to 1888 . . . but not to our 1888. Here, the South won the Civil War, steam-powered airships fill the skies, man has already been to space, and there are dinosaur remnants walking the Earth. Trapped in a history he's unprepared for, with political alliances he can't really trust, Jack finds himself forced to work as hard at picking friends from foes as at trying to find his way home.
The characters here were a bit thin for my liking, and the narrative itself could have benefited from a little more description, but it was still an enjoyable read. It's a large-scale, steampunk adventure tale, complete with witty banter and sarcastic asides that help provide a bit of an edge. There are no real surprises here, and little in the way of actual suspense, but Jack's triumphs and escapes are no less enjoyable for being predictable or convenient. There is some legitimate attempt to drive home Jack's divided loyalties, having become invested in the cause, but still desperately missing his daughter back in the present, and I think that conflict is what kicked his character up a notch.
It's not the strongest steampunk tale I've read this year, but The Forever Engine was enjoyable enough to keep me reading late into the night. It's kind of like a glossy b-grade adventure movie with a big budget - you know the flaws are there, but you're having enough fun to overlook them.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins