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The Tar Man

Style: Average → Good

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive

In Brief: Slightly less interesting second story. Some nice family touches especially between the adult Peter and his father. Some uncondoned violence from criminal characters. Series starts to become mired in time-travel technobabble.

Cover of The Tar Man

Author: Linda Buckley-Archer

Series: Gideon the Cutpurse

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Published in: 2006

Age Range: Young Teens+

Period: 18th C

Setting: London

Genres:  AdventureFamilyFriendshipHistoricalTime-Travel


Characters:

  • Peter Schock, left behind in the 18th century has grown up there as a gentleman and must decide what to do when his father arrives to bring him home.
  • Kate Dyer feels her responsibility to Peter lost in the 18th century outweighs her ties to her family in the 20th.
  • The Tar Man is a confident and amoral 18th century criminal who easily finds his feet in the modern world.

Synopsis:

Kate & her father have returned to the 20th Century unwittingly leaving Peter behind in the 18th and bringing instead the criminal Tar Man who uses his new-found abilities as a time-traveller to steal and plunder in this new century. Meanwhile Peter has grown to adulthood in the 18th century and is determined that it would be a mistake to return to the 20th century as an adult when Kate and his own father return to find him.

Notes:

The starting point this series was common enough. A boy and a girl flung into history have to find their way home. It's quite possible for a story of this sort to proceed on autopilot winding up with a happy-ever-after for all parties and providing enjoyable, if ultimately disposable, entertainment. In the case of Gideon the Cutpurse, however, Buckley-Archer produced two interesting and engaging sets of people, in the present and in the past, which together took the work beyond the simple quest-to-return novel.

That story saw Kate & Peter in 1763, guided by the interesting and ambiguous Gideon, chase the Tar Man to regain the Anti-Gravity Device which would return them to their own time. Meanwhile in the 20th century, Kate's scientist father and his colleagues were trying to find a way back to the 18th century while avoiding the questions of the police and of Peter's parents. The Anti-Gravity is a fairly hoary plot device, the McGuffin which serves to strand Kate and Peter where they are and give them a quest to follow.

Now in this sequel, the author's engineered a switcharound. Kate's back in the 20th century, but so is the Tar Man. Peter's trapped in the 18th century and Kate takes Peter's father back to look for him. Meanwhile the Tar Man makes use of his not inconsiderable criminal talents and his newly-found affinity with time travel to amass wealth for himself in our century. So now we have Kate and Peter's father chasing Peter in the 18th century while the police are chasing the Tar Man in the 20th and Dr Dyer and his colleagues are once again avoiding questions. The time-travel aspect plays much the same part as the machine must be repaired in the 18th century. But it starts to intrude on the story as the characters have to decide from which time zone to rescue Peter.

The book follows a similar structure to its prequel. Kate's stuck in the 18th century because the time machine broke on arrival. The inspector's chasing the Tar Man in the 20th century and Dr Dyer is trying to construct another device to return to the past. The 18th century segment is not without its appeal, but is weakened by the absence of Gideon who's elsewhere. The 20th century segment is likewise not unattractive, but at its weakest becomes just another Criminal Mastermind story. An additional subplot is creeping in, and it's this subplot which proves the weakest of all. Dr Dyer's colleague Dr Piretti is hearing voices and realises that it is her own self in a parallel time-track warning her against disaster. As the book comes to a conclusion, it seems that it's this aspect of the plot which will dominate in the final part of the trilogy, turning a story more interesting for its people than for its technicalities into a story driven by technobabble.

Pessimism aside, however, the story is almost but not quite as readable as the first in the series. Gideon is absent from the 18th century scenes and the other characters from that story are mentioned only in passing. But that's partly because of the main point in that story: by some mistake in the time-travel device it is now 30 years since Kate left Peter behind. And he's grown up and is now the same age as his father who comes to collect him. Feeling that his father would have wanted to return with the son he knew, and not with the man he doesn't, Peter arranges a subterfuge and pretends to be Gideon's younger brother Joshua.

Since this leaves Mr Schock free to explain to his son's “friend” things he wouldn't so easily have spoken about knowingly to Peter himself, it gives rise to several poignant moments as Peter & his father both realise something of the truth about their relationship. Peter, left in the 18th century before his manhood, has truly matured as an 18th century gentleman, talks like one, thinks like one. He's not putting on an act: he is a part of that century. And he knows he can't go back. And he sees with adult eyes the sort of man his father truly is. In one amusing moment, when Peter chides Mr Schock for playing with an expensive chandelier he realises that he has become very like his own father.

At the same time, the Tar Man's adventures in our century are less engaging. At times, they play out at the level of a modern-day police thriller when a new criminal mastermind appears on the scene. The Tar Man is just too comfortable in his new role, finds it just too easy to trap the Inspector's car with a helicopter and force information out of him. As a brutal 18th-century thief with a grudge against the world, he's ruthless and daring. But he has a soft spot of sorts for young Tom and in a surprising move, steals a horse from a girl but gives her an expensive watch in payment.

The Tar Man swims far more easily in the waters of time travel than any of the other characters and when the story builds to a climax, it's his actions which seem to be leading us away from a character-driven story and into a time-travel epic. But I hope I may be wrong.

Themes:

  • Time-travel paradoxes
  • How children view their parents

Wednesday 7th May 2008