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The Ministry of Time


The Ministry of Time

Debut author Kaliane Bradley stuns with her genre-bending, ingeniously constructed novel, THE MINISTRY OF TIME, a near-future work of speculative fiction that asks what might happen if we saved history by shoving a Victorian polar explorer into cohabitation with a jaded millennial. The answer, as it turns out, is equal parts espionage and intrigue, romance and rip-roaring, irreverent comedy.

In 1845, two ships set out in search of the Northwest Passage. They successfully reached the Canadian Arctic but were caught in ice for nearly two years. Weakened by common illnesses like scurvy, as well as exposure, the survivors chose to attempt the hundred-mile-plus walk to shore. Although evidence has been found to indicate that some froze to death, while others went insane and still others eventually resorted to cannibalism, only one fact is confirmed: they were never seen or heard from again. Until now, that is.

When we meet the unnamed protagonist of THE MINISTRY OF TIME, she has just entered the sixth and final round of interviews for a government posting labeled “Security Clearance Required.” Though she has never been cleared to this security level, she knows that securing the posting will nearly triple her salary and would require her, in one way or another, to work closely with refugees who have particular needs or safety concerns. Given the global political climate, she assumes this means expatriates of countries like Russia or China, but the British government has a very different type of “refugee” in mind.

"Bradley’s sheer delight and enjoyment at manipulating her characters shine through, and her wackier twists (when they come) are not just supported but earned by her urgency and immediacy."

We learn that the government has been exploring time travel and has begun to extract people from history to bring to the future (the book’s present day). Given the inherent chaos in disrupting the linear passage of time, the Ministry has chosen to target individuals living in war zones, natural disasters or epidemics --- those, in other words, who would have died in their own time anyway and therefore cannot disrupt ours by being suddenly removed from their time.

No one really knows what time travel will do to the human body, so choosing people who are already marked for death removes, at least in theory, an additional layer of cruelty from the formula. If someone was already doomed, it doesn’t really matter if they die now or had passed away back then. Of course, the expats themselves may disagree. Take Commander Graham Gore.

The first lieutenant of the ill-fated Northwest Passage exploration, Gore was last seen in his time walking across the ice in 1847, and was next seen being plucked from time by the current British government. Our protagonist is assigned as his “bridge”: a combination therapist/friend/mentor who is responsible for protecting Gore from danger, educating him on the modern world, and supplying meticulous notes about his hobbies, habits, diet and education to the Ministry. And if you think a young civil servant may have doubts about cohabitating with a should-be-dead man from history, you haven’t yet heard Gore’s thoughts on hemlines, servants, dating, television and even Spotify.

While some of Gore’s peers --- if “peers” in this sense means people from disparate timelines and realities who all happen to arrive in present-day together --- do not survive the trip, others do, only to succumb to massive PTSD at the sight of the modern world. Gore, though, is exceedingly calm, and as he and our unnamed protagonist begin to warm up to one another, he reveals himself to be not only extremely well-rounded and fully realized, but also pretty sharp and funny --- the kind of funny that results in laugh-out-loud banter and chemistry so thick you could cut it with a knife, and maybe even a love story. I told you this was a genre-bender.

Our protagonist and Gore have ample reasons to be distrustful of the Ministry. After all, even their employee is only told so much, and Gore was never really given a choice in their “rescue” of him. But when Gore's bridge spots dozens of expatriate reports tossed in the garbage, unopened, she begins to wonder what the real aim of the Ministry is. Gore, experiencing some serious survivor’s guilt, can’t help but ask: Why him, and why explore time travel like this? Why not --- he wonders, as he learns about our modern worries --- go back in time and put an early end to global warming or prevent wars?

As his musings turn from humorous to more cutting and introspective, the novel takes on a sharp, biting edge that has our protagonist considering her views on refugees (including her own mother), the changing shape of a universal moral compass, and the sensation of being displaced, from time or from yourself. And, of course, what she and Gore discover is that the Ministry is not exactly the benevolent refugee-saving government entity it makes itself out to be. (Genre, consider yourself bent.)

It goes without saying that our unnamed narrator and Gore’s relationship deepens, but this is no mere Outlander retelling or opposites-attract rom-com. Instead, Kaliane Bradley keeps her readers on their toes by luring them in with humor and romance and grounding them with deep, yet enjoyably explored, themes that speak not only to our contemporary moment, but also to our handling of and respect for history. Ambitious, certainly. But successful? Absolutely.

Although the notion of a time-travel, sci-fi thriller wrapped around a rom-com with a hint of workplace comedy may sound like too many chefs, Bradley’s sheer delight and enjoyment at manipulating her characters shine through, and her wackier twists (when they come) are not just supported but earned by her urgency and immediacy. The Ministry, and Gore’s arrival in it, feels so real by the end of the book that you no longer need to consider the “how” of it all. This leaves you free to focus on our doomed time outlaws as they navigate bureaucracy, modern marvels and, of course, the growing chemistry between them, as bustling London continues on around them.

I can’t say that THE MINISTRY OF TIME will be for everyone, but if you’re intimidated by the mishmash of genres, don’t be. Bradley is not only a courageous author, but an incredibly assured and adaptable one as well. Her clever debut is enough to entice, educate and envelop any reader.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 10, 2024

The Ministry of Time
by Kaliane Bradley

  • Publication Date: May 7, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Romance, Science Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1668045141
  • ISBN-13: 9781668045145