Prehistoric Clock by Robert Appleton is a steam-powered adventure story of the Jules Verne school of adventuring. Not to mention the Jules Verne era of scientific knowledge. But as an adventure story, it’s definitely great fun.
Prehistoric Clock is Victorian-inspired steampunk, so it is set in an alternate British Empire on which the sun has not set, and does not look likely to. The year is 1908, but it is definitely not our 1908. The world is powered, not just by steam, but also by an energy called psammeticum. Great airships rule the skies. And the secretive scientific gents (and a few ladies) of the Leviacrum Council, are the ones who really run the Empire.
Two seemingly unrelated events collide, rather spectacularly. Lieutenant Verity Champlain has promised the loyal crew of the Empress Matilda that she will get them to London, even if it’s a place that she barely remembers and that most of them have never seen. The Empress is an airship of the British Air Corps, and she has been ordered to London from her base in Africa. Her orders are to “protect the pipeline at all costs”.
Lord Garrett Embrey is in London, standing before a Star Chamber within the deep recesses of Grosvenor House. The supposedly “august gentlemen” are Government bureaucrats, but Embrey knows they are merely puppets of the Leviacrum Council. It has only been 18 months since his father and uncle were convicted of trumped-up charges of treason, and these same “gentlemen” have manufactured evidence against him as well.
Embrey whisks the forged letters away from the blackguards and flees the premises, one step ahead of the steam-powered Black Maria dogging his steps. He has a yacht at the marina, and he’s planning to leave England, hopefully for good. Now he knows there’s nothing left for him.
Professor Cecil Reardon manages to fool the Leviacrum Council’s inspection one last time. As soon as he has ushered their harridan of an investigator, Miss Polperro, out the door, he stops caring. All of his supposed work for the Council has been a grand hoax.
The Leviacrum Council has been building two great Leviacrum Towers, one in London, and another on the Benguela Plateau. Verity Champlain’s airship came from Benguela. Garrett Embry’s family was sacrificed on the altar of secrecy because they asked questions about that tower.
Cecil Reardon was supposed to be working on methods of harnessing Leviacrum power, in anticipation of a great event. Instead, he worked on something of his own. As soon as Miss Polperro left his factory, he flipped the switch on his Time Clock, in hopes of returning to the time before his wife and son died.
Professor Reardon’s invention works spectacularly but not accurately. London is cleaved in two. Big Ben is carved through the middle, and time is symbolically, as well as literally, shattered. The district surrounding Reardon’s factory is transported, not just a few decades back in time, but centuries, back to the Cretaceous period. Dinosaurs roam the earth.
Some humans survive the transition to this world of adventure. The Professor is at the epicenter. Unfortunately for him, Miss Polperro and her band of Inquisitors are trapped within the cone of transferrance. Verity Champlain’s airship is dragged out of the sky by the storm the time slip produces.
As for Garrett Embry, he is caught just barely inside the blast range with the young son of an ice cream truck driver. The boy’s father was killed in the separation. To Embry, the brave new/old world is a much better adventure than the trial he barely escaped, even with pterodactyls swooping out of the sky at every turn.
But the intrepid band of time wanderers cannot survive long in the terrifying past. The Professor must find a way to reverse the time clock’s trajectory, but he will only have one opportunity to get it right. And only if the dinosaurs don’t eat them first!
Escape Rating B: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells would be so proud! Prehistoric Clock reads very much like something of the Verne school of adventure writing, and there is a definite nod to Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth at the end. Of course the Clock itself is a time machine of the Wells’ persuasion, without the Eloi and Morlock, but Wells’ time traveler doesn’t suffer the same sad backstory as motivation as Professor Reardon.
The truly fascinating character in Prehistoric Clock is Verity Champlain. A female airship officer wasn’t usual, but her crew did not merely respect her, but found her so compelling that they gave her a particular honorific title, Eembu. It means “trousers”. Meet her and you’ll find out why.
The ending is open enough that there could be a sequel. I sincerely hope so.