Details: (c) Dave Duncan 1996; Pub Corgi 1997; ISBN 0-552-14509-2
Verdict: Past imperative is a slightly cliched but enjoyable fantasy.
Reasons for reading it: cartesiandaemon read it recently and thought it might interest me.
How it came into my hands: More specifically, my beau was reading it on the flight here, and decided he might as well leave it with me for me to bring back next time I see him.
Making Light provided the lovely term "portal fantasy" for the kind of Narnia-ish story where the protagonist breaks through into a preindustrial, magical world to become its saviour. (I thought the term for this was "secondary world", but apparently that is more general term for fantasy type settings.) In content, Past Imperative has quite an original take on the genre; in form, it's rather cliched. The parts of the story set in this world are historical, based at the start of WW1, which definitely adds a layer of interest. And the relationship between our world and the fantasy world of Nextdoor is a lot closer than the standard setup of the protagonist children being the only ones who travel there, and with an interesting mechanic for how the two worlds are intertwined.
The other strength of PI is that Edward is rather a fun viewpoint character. He's a 18-year-old straight out of a posh public school, motivated by an idea of honour which is very period, and very age-appropriate. His upper class background makes an interesting take on the genre norm of the hero being born to rule, because Edward has spent his whole life being groomed to be an administrator of the British Empire, as well as being the chosen one come to fulfil the prophecy in Nextdoor. So he's partly pure of heart, but also has some background which makes it plausible that a kid could take on a leadership role at need. I found him likeable; the book does mock him for being an upper-class archaism, but also shows that he's a genuinely decent person. It's perhaps a bit heavy-handed with the Dramatic Irony that Edward thinks he's still living in Kim whereas the reader knows that WW1 is about to destroy that world forever, but that's forgivable. Eleal is also quite likeable, though she's very much the type character of the disadvantaged yet spunky orphan.
Nextdoor is not a particularly imaginative world, to be honest. There are some cute details, such as the dragons, but it's more or less generic fantasy land (though all the people there are human, the worst post-Tolkien cliches of magical races are avoided). The only aspect of it that stands out is the religion. It's not the most amazing fantasy religion ever (well, it's hardly Duncan's fault that I came to this straight from Bujold!), but it's detailed and original, and includes plausible elements of both theology and social effects. I particularly liked the way that corruption is included, not merely an "evil god" who provides a supervillain for a boringly dualist system, but people who are using religion simply as a tool for manipulating people. Duncan occasionally lets himself down by drifting too far into polemic against religion; the constant harping about how honest and admirable Edward is for being agnostic gets a bit grating!
The sympathetic characters make the plot interesting, and I couldn't predict how things were going to go, and it does a good job of revealing information about the setting in ways that advance the action. However, the book is an absolutely typical first book of a fantasy trilogy, spending about 300 pages just setting the scene, and continuing to feel bloated even once the action picks up. The ending doesn't feel satisfying either; it's not exactly a cliffhanger, but it's very clearly more of a chapter break than the end of an arc. This is a perfect example of why I avoid multi-volume fantasy series!
The most obvious imbalance is that the book is trying for what papersky calls a ratchet structure, alternating between Edward's viewpoint and Eleal's to build up the story from two different angles, but obviously Eleal needs a lot more world-building than Edward, so there are an awful lot of repetitive scenes of Edward lying in hospital being interrogated as murder suspect, while we see Eleal going through various scenarios of Nextdoor life. It takes far too long Edward to reach Nextdoor and tie the two threads together; I think showcasing the worldbuilding via the Eleal viewpoint could have happened after Edward's arrival.
The other thing that annoyed me about PI is the pervasive racism and ableism. I do realize that it's supposed to create a sense of period, and although the narrative voice is technically third person, it's very much in Edward's head, so it more or less comes under the heading of dialogue when he throws around terms like "wop", "nigger" and "cripple". Indeed, the descriptions of Eleal as "the cripple child" or "the poor little cripple" [sic], and the almost cartoonish portrayal of Gypsies seem to go beyond putting period terms into Edward's dialogue. It's a delicate balance to portray an era or culture that doesn't live up to modern humanitarian standards, without offending your modern audience, and I think unfortunately Duncan fails to hold that balance.
Certainly, PI has many good features, and kept me reading in spite of the slight problems with pacing.