Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A novel of ideas dressed in genre tropes

The Revisionists
by Thomas Mullen

Zed is an operative from the distant future, the Perfect Present. He is one of the sad souls tasked with working for the Disasters Division of the ultra-secret Department of Historical Integrity. Basically, he immerses himself in a past historical period (his “beat”), and then travels to that time to assure by any means necessary that past disasters (like the Holocaust and 9/11) occur as they were meant to. There are extremists factions from his time who have also acquired time travel technology, and these historical agitators—or “hags” as they are known—will stop at nothing to alter the past. But without maintaining the painful events of the past, the Perfect Present can never be achieved. He believes in the importance of what he is doing.

Zed’s current beat is the early 21st century, just before the Great Conflagration and its decades of war and strife. He has adopted the identity of “contemp,” Troy Jones. The Department sets operatives up with identities and covers that are similar in appearance and even history so that they can more easily blend in. Operatives are to leave as little “trace” in the timeline as possible. But Zed/Troy has been on the job a long time. He’s tired, bored, and lonely. That’s why he approaches Tasha; she’s of no historical importance. Or is she?

Tasha is the second of several main characters in this complex drama. Another is Leo, an idealistic former government spook, who is now a private spook for hire. Leo’s trajectory intercepts that of Tasha, Troy Jones, and Sari, a domestic servant in the home of Korean diplomats. Are you following so far? There’s a lot of story here, and I’ve barely brushed the surface. There is no need to know more than this because the novel’s plot is far too convoluted to summarize. Also, there are several twists and surprises that shouldn’t be spoiled.

The novel described above sounds plot-heavy, and it is, but make no mistake, The Revisionists is a novel of ideas. Thomas Mullen is exploring ideas about race, politics, nationality, morality, history, identity, conspiracy, government, whether ends justify means, and so much more. It’s a lot to take in, to the point that I was feeling slightly overwhelmed at times, but I love novels that make you think. They tend to stay with me long after I’ve set them aside. Mullen’s is full of moral ambiguity, gray areas, and characters that can be hard to get a handle on.

It’s worth noting that when I picked up this novel, I did not realize that it was set in my hometown, Washington DC. The setting of the novel is integral to the story, and Mullen, a former resident, does a great job fleshing out the reality of a city like no other. There’s a lot about this novel that is challenging, and I can’t even imagine how Mr. Mullen kept track of his sprawling and complicated tale, but it works. It really does. If this sounds like your kind story, it is recommended with one caveat: Do not expect this novel to be wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow. Be prepared to live with an element of ambiguity and questions that may nag after you’ve put the novel down.


  1. Great review! I`m reading this for sure!

  2. Thanks, Alexander. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. :-)