A River Called Time by Courttia Newland review – a vivid alternate reality

This speculative dystopia may strain for effect but is carried through by sheer energy and verve

Alternative London ... the Thames becomes the River Azilé.
Alternative London ... the Thames becomes the River Azilé. Photograph: Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images

It speaks to the hold TV still has over our culture that Courttia Newland, the author of seven novels and co-editor of The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, is best known today for the scripts he wrote for Steve McQueen’s BBC series Small Axe. Excellent scripts they are, too, and there is something televisual in the way Newland pitches his new novel: lots of visual description, busy with incident and plotty twists and turns. Where Small Axe grounds its stories in the lived experience of real people from the 1960s and 70s, A River Called Time reaches forward into a near-future alternate reality. If there are aspects of this worldbuilding that don’t entirely work, then maybe that reflects the broader influence on fiction of TV. Newland is certainly not the only contemporary writer trying to reproduce the immediacy and kinetic hustle of visual drama; but TV and novels tell stories in quite different ways, and sometimes that difference jars.

A River Called Time is set in Dinium, a version of London where most live among squalor, disease and violence, although a wealthy few occupy “the Ark”, an elite enclosure in the centre of the city. Our protagonist, Markriss Denny, grows up poor in the suburbs but has special powers: he can astrally project himself. He wins a place inside the Ark, but once there he finds his troubles are only just beginning. It turns out that his oldest friend, Ayizan, is actually his astral rival, and must be destroyed if the world is to be saved.

Newland gives his dystopia an extra spin by making it an alternate history. In this world European interactions with Africa, stretching back to Ancient Egypt, were treated as opportunities to learn and mingle, not to exploit and enslave. As a result, magical African abilities (squashed in our timeline, the implication is, by the horrors of colonialism) have flourished, becoming a kind of world religion. Not that the global garden is rosy. A mega-corporation called E-Lul dominates, using Matrix-like pods to sedate the populace via “crystal energy” that fills people’s nights with “dreams of tranquil places”. As for Dinium, it was wrecked by a mysterious “War of Light” in 1814-18 and has never really recovered.

Alt-history is a venerable science-fictional mode, but usually the moment where the story’s timeline diverges from “real” history is relatively recent: the South wins the US civil war, Hitler prevails, that kind of thing. The problem with setting that hinge point thousands of years into pre-history is that the subsequent divergence must perforce be so huge as to lead to an utterly different, unrecognisable “now”. But while Newland’s dystopian London is vividly rendered, it’s always recognisably our London, only a little scuffed and distressed from its glorious-grubby actuality. In this novel the Thames is called the River Azilé, but Charlton FC are still called Charlton FC.

But perhaps this is to nitpick. The story is readable and absorbing. There’s a fair amount of astral gubbins (“this is uraeus, a weapon that uses your sixth and seventh naardim to harness psychic force”; “anger lit his fifth major chakra”, and so on), which some readers will find more congenial than others, but which Newland carries off with likable chutzpah. His dialogue is good, as you might expect, but the descriptive prose is sometimes over-fruity. The desire to avoid cliche is commendable, but sometimes effortful stylistic ingenuity backfires. Turned away from a doorway by a butler, we’re told that “an out-of-depth feeling lapped at Markriss’s chin”. His chin?

A stranger rushes Markriss with a knife, “blade phallus-ready”. “Eyes hidden, cast at their feet” suggests eyeballs, not glances, hitting the ground. “Nesta’s tears obeying gravity’s rules, not those of teenage boys, falling to the concrete regardless of his wish” is an over-fancy way of saying “he wished she wasn’t crying”. “The woman’s legs stretched gantry high” isn’t as sexy as it thinks it is. Such moments are symptomatic of a writer straining for effect – aiming, perhaps, for a televisual vividness rather than resting content in more literary restraint. Vivid writing is better than bland writing, no question. But good writing is best of all.

Where the novel really comes into its own is the final quarter, when various diverging timelines are gathered into a multiverse bouquet. It almost makes up for the disbelief I couldn’t quite suspend in the earlier stages. Conceivably these latter sections work best because here Newland is back in the “real” world, and that’s where he is best fitted as a writer. But if A River Called Time left me with some reservations, no one can doubt the sheer energy and verve of Newland’s vision.

Adam Roberts’s Purgatory Mount will be published by Gollancz in February. A River Called Time by Courttia Newland is published by Canongate (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop,com. Delivery charges may apply.