In Past Tense, author Nick Marsh deftly channels the ghosts of Douglas Adams and (to a lesser extent) Philip K. Dick to deliver a mind-bending tale of tunics and time-travel in which, needless to say, the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. The novel is the second in a series following Alan Reece, a veterinarian and part-time “conduit” to forces the rest of us have yet to understand. That Alan himself also has yet to understand these forces adds both to his own consternation and to the dry comic tone of Marsh’s writing. He’s an unwitting (if not unwilling) hero who finds himself drawn back to the days of the Roman Empire where he struggles both to adapt to the ways of the ancient world and to save the world as we know it from certain doom.
Throughout the narrative, Marsh displays his literary and pop-culture influences proudly. Fans of classic British Sci-Fi will certainly appreciate the ways in which Past Tense pays tribute to the 1965 Doctor Who serial “The Romans” as well as the novel’s multiple references to the cult series Red Dwarf. Likewise, the hero’s professed love for the work of Douglas Adams sends a clear signal regarding the novel’s pedigree. Yet even though references to other works abound, Past Tense stands on its own, and throughout the proceedings, Marsh proves himself a talented and inventive purveyor of imaginative fiction.
If I have one quibble with this book, it’s not with the writing but with the typesetting: the print is very small, ten- or possibly even nine-point Garamond. Of course, small presses need to do whatever they can to keep costs down, but when a book’s front matter and the ad on the back page are set in a larger typeface than the rest of the book, it’s probably a sign that the size of the print throughout should be larger. Overall, though, Past Tense is a fun read, especially for fans of Adams’ Dirk Gently series and Philip K. Dick’s Valis.