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Richard Bowes' From the Files of the Time Rangers is an ambitious and satisfying novel by a writer of dazzling talents. What makes it so great, apart from the story itself, which I'll get to in a minute, is how it's told. Bowes presents snapshots of his characters and his plot in different times, and in realities that diverge from "reality" to varying degrees, scattering them through his narrative like pieces in a jumbled-up puzzle. Only gradually, as you read, do the pieces come together, and it's one of the joys of the novel to see its patterns and structure take shape before your eyes. Overall, the novel is speculative fiction, with gods and alternate histories and time travel, but Bowes pulls from other genres--mysteries, thrillers, noir, literary mainstream-so that Time Rangers is also a masterful mosaic of styles. You keep asking yourself, Can he really pull it off? But he does. Like the urbane Roman poet Ovid, to whom he tips his hat in an afterword, Bowes imposes order on chaos, and the results are glorious.
He's telling a story about America as a land of promises kept and broken, America as ground zero in a war between gods (mainly in Greek and Roman incarnations), humans, and strange machine intelligences of the far future who seem destined to replace them both. The machines are relentlessly pressing back the advent of their future triumph, so that it occurs earlier and earlier, while the gods are struggling desperately to hold on to what they've got. The Time Rangers of the novel's title are humans who serve the God Apollo; but there are also humans aligned with other gods, notably Mercury, Pluto (Godfather Death), Dionysus, Diana, and Ares (Lord Storm). Nor are the gods and their followers always allied with each other against the threat of the machines; on the contrary, the gods are as protean and volatile as mythology paints them--and Dionysus and Apollo, for example, have very different ideas about the best way to fight the machines. But this is merely the backdrop of the novel; it informs everything, yet Bowes' real story is elsewhere, in the dreams and aspirations of his human characters, in the lives they lead, which are, to a greater or lesser extent, shaped by the gods for their own purposes.
Thus we have the Timothy McCauley, groomed by the gods for the Presidency; Robert Logue, blessed/cursed by Godfather Death with the ability to sense the deaths of others; Nancy Kane, Ed Brown, and Jake Stockley, three young Rangers who in the course of the novel grow old and young and live and die and live again; and many, many others, a cast of Dickensian scope, each portrayed with sensitivity and acuity. Bowes writes with enviable economy and precision of detail: the amount of information and feeling he can convey in a seemingly simple sentence is truly amazing, and his narrative voice possesses unimpeachable authority yet is capable of devastating irony and profound sympathy. From the Files of the Time Rangers is his best book yet, a book I will unhesitatingly recommend to friends who read speculative fiction and to those who do not.