This is an older book that Michael Crichton published in 1999 and frequently while reading it, I had the feeling I might have read it back then but wasn’t remembering characters or the storyline specifically. But several times, I would feel, “I think I read this,” but not knowing (or remembering) anything about it, I continued on and the more I got into it, the less I felt like I had read it. A friend suggested, when I mentioned this to her, that maybe I’d read too much Michael Crichton and that could well be the case. I loved his books from his first publication, “The Andromeda Strain,” but gradually felt many were too similar in both characters and plots, namely the effects of time travel. They were different in their locales but they had a formula to them of good people, bad people (especially those who want to exploit the benefits of science and time travel), well-meaning people, idealistic people, ruthless people, and people getting stuck in and at the mercy of the time period, etc. There were frequently variations on the theme but the theme remained, and this book is included in all of these points.
The book opens with a mysterious seriously ill man whom a vacationing couple find wandering in the New Mexico desert. When they bring him to a local hospital, his condition creates all kinds of unanswerable questions for both the medical personnel and the police, who are called in because of the unusual situation. They learn he was a physicist and employee of ITC, a high tech company that on the surface is developing technological advances, though much is kept secret from the media and the public. They are, however, funding historical and archeological research medieval towns in the Dordogne region of France, and the leader of the historical and archaeological team, Professor Johnston, goes to their New Mexico headquarters with suspicions about detailed knowledge of the site that the ITC staff who visit seem to have.
While he is gone, archaeologists at the site discover an anomaly that appears directly but impossibly linked to Professor Johnston, including a piece of parchment on which he appears to have asked them for help. This makes them question what has happened to him and what ITC really is doing. Consequently, they fly to New Mexico and discover that ITC has been using quantum technology to travel to Dordogne in 1357 and that Professor Johnston did so but had not returned. Three of the researchers agree to go into time to retrieve him, knowing they are limited by a window of time; if they and he are not at the transit pad within a specific amount of time, they will be forever in 1357. The fourth researcher, however, chooses not to go, distrusting, Doniger, the founder and the owner of ITC, as well as its technology, convinced they haven’t been told everything regarding the time travel, which according to ITC isn’t really time travel by multiverse travel (as opposed to universe) through quantum wormholes. Gradually, too, Doniger reveals the evidence of “transcription errors,” which occur when people go back and return too often in time; physical and mental issues develop, at first not too seriously but eventual become too dangerous for the traveler.
Naturally, the three who do go encounter the expected problems that all residents of that time period experience, and become victims of the war that is occurring there and the barbarism of the medieval way of life. Included among these trials is the fact that their transit pad has been inadvertently destroyed by one of the military escorts from ITC when he tries to return to the present. At this point, they attempt to blend in with the populace, which isn’t always feasible, despite their medieval clothing and earpieces that translate the archaic language, and which are communication devices among themselves, as well. This is how they begin to realize there is someone among the warring factions who also has an earpiece and hears them and is determined to kill them to avoid detection; they don’t know why or how he is there, and are initially unaware of which knight or nobleman he might be, and unaware of the phenomenon of transcription errors that have affected him mentally.
Meanwhile, as they try to rescue the professor and keep themselves safe until they can use a ceramic piece they still have that can call a transit pad to them from the other side, they are unaware of that in the present, a huge explosion has occurred at ITC and they are trying desperately to repair the transit pads so when they are ready to transport back, they will be able to. Toward the end of the book, there is tremendous suspense, typical of Crichton, within both stories – timing the repair on one side and the attempts of the three rescuers and the professor to be at the right place and time, while fighting for their lives.
What I liked about this story was the details Crichton included around the medieval way of life, not romanticizing it at all, although one of the characters, Marek, who has been totally immersed in medieval history for years, has romanticized it and is shocked when he realizes what a brutal society it was. Still, he was the most prepared to endure, understand and accept it, which helps him as they try to negotiate their way through the war battles and their personal battles. I didn’t like the detail that Crichton went into around quantum physics, because even when explaining it, it was so difficult to understand and at some point, I began thinking he was not really explaining it but justifying it as it applied to his story. I wasn’t sure what was accurate and what wasn’t.
This was a fun and exciting book and if you like stories about time travel and particularly if you like history, you would enjoy it. Crichton was very good at developing his characters and most acted the way you expect them to act from when you first meet them. The story moved along well, except at times when ITC was being described, and I admit having a tendency to skim those parts. I thought the physical landscape and architecture and lifestyle described of the medieval villages and castles were rich in detail and most of that was through the characters’ eyes and experiences, making it more digestible than the ITC-type descriptions. Toward the end, I didn’t want to put the book down because I wanted to see what was going to happen with each of the characters trying to return and in that respect, was not at all dissatisfied.