It is a rare thing to come across a book that grabs your attention so fully that you want to stop everything else so you can finish the story. A Twist in Time, the new novel from Brent A. Harris, is one such book. Enter one Oliver Twist, a young orphan taken in by the friendly, helpful Artful Dodger and taught the ways of the street as a pick pocket. Oh, you think you’ve heard this story before? If you took a high school English class you probably did, but this is not the Oliver Twist we know from Dickens. This is a London that has the gleam of punk added onto the burgeoning age of steam. It is on these altered Victorian streets that the young Oliver ply’s his trade as a pick pocket, but the pocket watch Oliver just stole will change his life. Jump forward ten years and Oliver has become, not quite a gentleman, but lives a comfortable life and has some modicum of fame from Dickens novel. (Yes, some fourth wall busting here, and I love it.) He’s trying to help others like himself, the young orphans of the city, although poverty and indifference make this a daunting task. But orphans in the city have gone missing, and when Oliver makes a visit to the old Foundling Workhouse where he’d grown up, one of the young orphans that Oliver has tried to save is taken. Oliver gives chase and soon finds himself out of his depth, sliding toward a future he has little control over. As Oliver continues to dig and pry, he uncovers a fiendish plot to reshape London. Oliver might be able to stop this plot and save the city if he can embrace his past and who he really is.
There are so many things I love about this book. A steampunk adventure that involves some of literature’s best known characters AND involves time travel – sign me up. But that’s not the main reason I love A Twist in Time (it’s a good reason, but not the only one). Brent Harris has a wonderful way with words, making them dance and sing to bring the story to life. For example: “In the evening, gaslights mourn, there isn’t a dry spot on the walks to be found to sleep on; dampness clings to you like a cloak, ice and snow paralyze the city in place.” Or: “The two made for an interesting sight, two desperate street urchins showing the truth of Victorian life.” This descriptive narrative is intermixed with Victorian slang and a sprinkling of humor in a lively prose.
Harris has also created characters we want to care about. He has taken a character you thought you knew, Oliver Twist, and shown us a young man who’s gliding through life, trying to do the right thing, but unsure of who he really is. Oliver is torn between the many roles and personas he was – poor orphan boy, street urchin – and the person he has become, and who he thinks he needs to be. Oliver is surrounded by people who constantly remind him of these different personas. Edward, a young orphan that Oliver is trying to protect, reminds Oliver of his past life, as does the Artful Dodger, and each reflects the different people Oliver had been. Mr. Brownlow, Oliver’s benefactor and mentor, ties Oliver to the ease and comfort provided by his fame and wealth. As the story progresses, we see Oliver struggle, trying to come to terms of who he is: orphan, urchin, or gentleman. The other characters are just as developed. Nell is a rock for Oliver, keeping him grounded and on track, and serving as mentor and trainer. The Artful Dodger, Jill Dawkins, is a free spirit and a force of chaos, constantly reminding Oliver where he came from and how disappointing his life has become. Each seems to tug and pull Oliver, both adding to his struggle for identity and helping him to resolve who he must become to save the city.
Great characters are only part of a good formula, you also need a good story. And again, Harris has delivered. A Twist in Time’s plot jumps and weaves as gracefully as the Artful Dodger slips away from trouble. The action and pace move at a cinematic clip, and new revelations and changes to the plot are peppered throughout to keep you turning the page. The final twist in the story might be anticipated by a few sharp readers, but it ties the entire story together.
In A Twist in Time Brent Harris has delivered a masterpiece of steampunk action-adventure fused with Victorian science fiction. He’s created an alternative literary history for characters we thought we knew and who will grab our attention just as much as the originals do. This is a story that Charles Dickens himself would enjoy.