So, when I went out looking for new books to buy, at some point I came across “Tales of the Time Scouts”, which republished two of the works in the “Time Scout” series by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans. I’ve read some of Asprin’s other works before — notably the “Myth” series and the “Phule’s Company” series — and liked them, and so decided to give it a chance. So what did I think of it?
The first thing I noticed is that despite being published in 1995, it seems to have adopted what I see as the “old style” form of writing, which means that they tend to not do a lot of scene setting and world-building right off the top. The “Amber” series by Roger Zelazny is another example of this, and it strikes me that a lot of the older and more classical works tend to just drop you into the middle of the action and just sorta explain things and things go along. Here, this leads, especially in the first book, to it being unclear just how the whole time travel thing and how the Time Scouts and even the backgrounds of the characters are supposed to work. This can get annoying at times. That being said, that model avoids the feeling I had while reading “Free Fall”, a book based on the “Android” board game, where it seemed that every few pages they stopped to dump more exposition on you about how the world worked. Even though I ultimately did enjoy reading that book, sometimes the extra exposition was a bit grating.
Here, we mostly follow the quest of a teenage girl, Margo, as she tries desperately to become a Time Scout, aided by her grandfather Kit Carson — even though he doesn’t know that she’s his granddaughter at the start of the book — and another former Time Scout, Malcolm. They keep trying to impress upon her that this isn’t something to be rushed and that she needs to learn lots in order to be able to do that, and she keeps ignoring them and always ends up having them proved right pretty much all the time. Every time she tries to do anything when she travels to another time, she ends up screwing it up, which often dents yet doesn’t break both her desperation and her confidence in her own abilities (that keeps getting proved to be inadequate).
Shamus Young, somewhere, commented on Tidus from Final Fantasy X as being, in a lot of ways, a typical teenager, and so while a lot of people might have found him annoying for that reason, ultimately a lot of his faults can be explained by that. I’m not sure that holds for him, but it does hold for Margo in this book. She is, in general, annoying, but we can indeed explain away those annoying traits with “She’s a teenage girl from a relatively rough background; she needs to grow up a bit”. And we can do that … right up until the last section of the book. For all of her other disasters, we can easily justify her confidence with a claim of “Yeah, but I’ve learned my lesson and now I know what to do!”. But she had a disastrous time in Ancient Rome where she runs away from Malcolm after having consensual sex with him that she wasn’t ready for, gets lost, almost doesn’t get back to the vortex in time, and picks up a slave that she didn’t want and had no idea how to handle. She only survived because she lucked into finding someone who treated her well, and couldn’t even understand the language. She herself, internally, even seems to acknowledge how badly she screwed up. And yet all it takes are some sly words from a shady character and she’s signing up to run an expedition into a time that she knew nothing about and wasn’t ready for. This goes beyond “youthful overconfidence” and straight into “utter stupidity”.
And, of course, the expedition is a complete and utter disaster on a scale that we couldn’t have imagined before it started, and Margo proves herself utterly incapable, although she handles the disaster well. She clearly ought not have gone on the expedition (and the book and characters, to their credit, acknowledge that).
This could have been worked better if Margo’s reasons for being in that much of a hurry were better ones. They tie it into the upcoming death of her father, but it seems that the only reason she’s doing it is so that she can prove herself to him before he dies … except that he wasn’t a beloved father whom she was trying to live up to, but instead was arguably an abusive father that she was better off without. Wanting to prove herself to him was indeed a teenage motivation, but to go that far when things went that badly for her in her previous trip through time again falls into the category of “utter stupidity”.
Also, as a minor point, the “Kit Carson” isn’t that Kit Carson, but we don’t find that out until the next book. Given how slim the details of the world are, this thus comes across as an attempt to make us feel like it was indeed that Kit Carson and think “Cool!”, only to find out later that it wasn’t, which is disappointing. Fortunately, nothing in the plot relies on this potential confusion.
Ultimately, though, the book was entertaining. While Margo is, in fact, incredibly annoying, the other characters are interesting, especially Malcolm, and most of Margo’s annoyances are things that can be forgiven, overlooked, or follow from the plot and characterization itself. It’s not as good as the other things I’ve read by Asprin, but it’s entertaining enough.