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Broken Time
Maggy Thomas
Roc Books, 339 pages

Broken Time
Maggy Thomas
Maggy Thomas is a pseudonym of author Emily Devenport, whose books include SF adventures Eggheads and GodHeads, both from Roc. She lives with her husband in Phoenix, Arizona.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

When Siggy Lindquist is just seven years old, she stumbles into a bizarre space-time anomaly that she dubs a Time Pocket. David Silverstein, an older boy Siggy knows from school, is in there too; and though Siggy manages to escape, David doesn't. Afterward, when she tries to tell people about David, she finds that no one remembers him. It's as if he never existed. Siggy vows never to forget David, and, one day, to figure out how to set him free.

Siggy grows up smart -- but not smart enough, in the overcrowded universe she lives in, to get a really good job. So she takes a position as a janitor at the Institute for the Criminally Insane. There she's put to work on Monster Row, home to the universe's deadliest psychopaths. As part of the Institute's psychiatric research (which possibly is illegal), she's ordered to talk to three of the worst: Commander Joseph Bell, a former spacer whose experimental physical modifications have driven him insane; the Professor, an inhumanly fast, chillingly emotionless serial murderer; and Jerry Gross, a sadistic maniac who tortures his victims to death and thinks he's the Antichrist.

The experiment goes awry, and Jerry Gross escapes, murdering Siggy's best friend in the process. Siggy quits the Institute and tries to move on. But her experience on Monster Row can't be left behind, any more than her memory of David Silverstein and the Time Pockets can be. Eventually these things -- along with a space-folding stellar transporter called Enigma, and the Speedies, a race of aliens who live in a speeded-up universe -- come together to twist her life in strange and terrifying ways.

Broken Time has a somewhat convoluted structure -- starting at the Institute, jumping back to Siggy's childhood, skipping big chunks of time and folding flashbacks within flashbacks (rather like Enigma, in fact). Nevertheless, for most of its length, it's an engrossing, coherent story, with interesting action and intriguing science-fictional speculations. Siggy's an engaging character, if perhaps a bit too pivotal to the many plot twists to be entirely credible; other characters are also well-drawn. The alien Speedies are convincingly un-human, both in their physiognomy and their psychology, and Thomas builds a credible picture of the profound cultural misunderstandings that arise when they interact with humans.

The most effective part of the book is the Monster Row section. Inevitably, an author dealing with this subject matter will be compared to Thomas Harris -- and indeed the Professor is rather Lecter-ish, not just in his behaviour but in his peculiar relationship with Siggy. But Thomas manages to avoid derivativeness through a nice use of detail and atmosphere, and her other killers are very different, especially Jerry Gross -- a complete and utter geek whose capacity for absolute, pure-hearted savagery transforms him into a kind of demon. He's the book's most vivid creation, and the beneficiary of some of its best dialogue.

Ultimately, though, Broken Time tries to be about too many things. Is it a psychological thriller? A story of alien/human contact? A space-time conundrum? In the end, Thomas is unable to hold all these disparate elements together. The denouement seems contrived, and answers the questions that have built up over the course of the narrative only by means of big leaps in logic. Most disappointing of all -- to me at least -- is the resolution of the Monster Row storyline. The inhumanity of serial killers and psychopaths is often discussed, but what's fascinating about them is precisely the fact that they are human. To find out that they literally are not makes them, abruptly, much less interesting.

Copyright © 2000 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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