Book Review: The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight
The time and place
We start on the research spaceship Amoebas in 1954, alternate history. Then we’re yanked to Victorian England. Several other times and places make an appearance in the story.
The suspension of disbelief
Somebody invents a time machine in 1862. Once that happens, things start getting pretty bonkers.
The quick summary
Millicent Aberly accidentally activates her genius brother Hubert’s new time machine, which throws her into a future where the Roman Empire did not fall, but expanded, even colonizing space. The Romans now fight the space squid for control of…space. Millicent is saved from death-by-space-squid by the dashing lady centurion Sangfroid, who she develops a crush on. As they make their way through the ship, Sangfroid dies, and Millicent returns to her original time and place. Intrigued by Sangfroid and wracked with guilt, Millicent uses the time machine again to try to prevent Sangfroid’s death. Many tries later, Sangfroid accidentally comes back to London and Millicent’s time. Then other strange phenomena begin, starting with giant squid and another Roman soldier from Sangfroid’s time showing up in the Aberly house. Matters get further muddled when there’s another time machine accident; and Millicent has to decide whether to save the version of London she knows, or keep her beloved Sangfroid in existence.
I have long found the work of HP Lovecraft interesting and hysterical: I went to the university that is Miskatonic’s closest analog (we have a library with books bound in human skin!), and while there I connected with many science fiction fans who loved the Victorian era and all things steampunk. Some of them impressed upon me that linear time is inherently straight and that subversion of it would be queer. This was before same-sex marriage was legalized anywhere in the US, and my friends bitterly joked that their so-called gay marriage agenda was to destroy linear time. So this book tied together some of my fondest memories of my college friends together: a bunch more of them were Classics geeks who could name the five worst Roman emperors. I’ll be recommending this book or loaning it out to as many of them as I can.
The story blends steampunk, science fiction, alternate history, romance, and a tea cult. I love McKnight’s imagination: strange creatures and technology are everywhere, causing mayhem. I wasn’t sure where the plot would go and got surprised several times. Nothing seemed out of place, though. Most of the “hey what about…” questions I had got resolved, although I think some mysteries are still there to explore in further books.
The characters and dialogue are strong, somehow remaining grounded as their reality gets wackier. Watching proper Victorians deal with the fantastical made me smile: they rationalize and hold on to their realities in believable fashion. Millicent worries about her ruined dress when there are far more dire concerns because it’s what she’s used to caring about. Hubert and his fiancée Sophia are gloriously neurotic. If you enjoy witty British banter, this is your cup of tea. Oh, that was awful, but I stand by my words. The romance between Millicent and Sangfroid is very sweet, and there is a hilarious secondary love story and yet another serious crush. There’s a happy-for-now at the end of The Tea Machine that asks more questions than it answers, so their story shall continue.
I’m not surprised that the Victorian ladies misgender Sangfroid, but I did raise a brow at the Romans who do so, when they recognize that centurion Gallo is female. Perhaps there’s a reason for that I missed. Sangfroid says she's obviously female, but her idea of obvious may not be in line with the others she meets.
The narrative is very twisty: there are several timelines to keep track of, and we’re dumped in the middle of the action. I liked how we start with Sangfroid’s getting the background information after the fact, but the flashbacks and explanations later in the story felt less potent in how they were conveyed.
In the copy I got, there were enough typos that I felt it needed another proofreading pass from the editor(s) at Ylva.
Read if you
- Enjoy Dr. Who-style time travel and British banter
- Thought the Roman coliseums seriously needed mechanized beasts
- Enjoy a sweet slow burn during frantic adventure
Skip if you
- Can’t handle lots of gore, especially of squid and large animals
- Don’t want to keep track of different timelines and causalities
- Are looking for erotic tentacle romance- you'll be disappointed
Disclosure and final thoughts
I received a free copy for review, but bought one to use as a loaner once I finished it. If you’re not sure if it’s for you, use Amazon’s sample chapters to see if you like the humor and vivid setting. It’s an original screwball premise with unpredictable twists, and I look forward to the sequel.
Author site: Gill McKnight