The Emperor of All Things

Written by Paul Witcover
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1758, London. Daniel Quare, bastard, and Journeyman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, is on a mission. His instructions are to get hold of a pocket watch which is rumoured to have the property of ruling Time itself. Such a piece would give its owner unrivalled power over his enemies, and the Company of Clockmakers is determined to have it in British hands. Britain has enemies: potential rebels in the American colonies, Jacobites in France; there are many countries that would be glad to see Britain’s power reduced. Two men lust after the watch: the eccentric collector, Lord Wichcote, and Master Magnus of the Clockmakers’ Guild. Both profess to be concerned for their country, yet both will stop at nothing to possess the timepiece. And what of Grimalkin, masked thief, master of swordsmanship, disguise and escape? Whom does he serve? Soon, Quare is on a quest where, as he discovers, Time itself plays tricks and nothing is as it seems.

The Emperor of All Things is part historical novel – Witcover vividly evokes an authentically dangerous, dirty and smelly 18th century London Henry Fielding would recognise – and part historical fantasy. The mysterious Alpine village of Märchen, set in a time warp, is eerily reminiscent of Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy. My one niggle is that the book is plot-driven rather than character driven; I found it difficult to believe in Quare’s search for his unknown father. He tells us he is desperate to find out his parentage but he doesn’t show it; when he discovers his mother’s name he does nothing to follow up the lead.

The real Daniel Quare was a devout Quaker and an innovative and well-respected clockmaker. I enjoyed his lively posthumous life as an agnostic rationalist! The Emperor of All Things is a real page-turner which had me gripped.