Norton is very happy with his life – accountable to no one, he treks through Earth’s many wilderness areas, picking up after himself as he goes; he’s open with the many women he encounters; and he supports himself by telling tales for a price. One day he is approached by a man who asks to share him meal – though Norton has little enough himself, he agrees. It transpires that the man is really the ghost of a dragon-slayer named Gawain. Gawain has an interesting proposition – the heir to a fortune, his estate has agreed that he can use a proxy to sire his own heir via Gawain’s wife, Orlene (who was married to Gawain after his death).
Orlene has a gift – she can tell how right for each other people are – and Norton glows for her. After an initially rocky start, Orlene and Norton hit it off; Norton feels things for Orlene he never has before, and in time Orlene becomes pregnant. But shortly into the pregnancy, Gawain tells Norton that he couldn’t leave well enough alone – Gawain entreated the Incarnation Nature to ensure the baby would be male, and switch Norton’s DNA for his own. Nature did so, but without paying close attention – the child has a recessive malady that runs in Gawain’s family, and is destined to die early.
All Orlene’s attention becomes focused on the baby. Shortly before his first birthday, the baby is approached by Death. Angry, Norton confronts the Incarnation, who takes him to one side and explains that it is the baby’s time, that further life would mean only further suffering. His compassion calms and impresses Norton. Orlene seems surprisingly calm following the baby’s death, until Norton finds her lifeless body.
Devastated, Norton leaves Gawain’s estate and resumes his travels until Gawain, wracked with guilt, tracks him down and offers Norton a new deal – the opportunity to become Chronos, the Incarnation of Time – it means living life opposite to everyone else, as the office holder’s period of occupancy runs for the duration of their lived life. With nothing else in his life, Norton accepts.
I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as the previous one –Satan tries to convince a naïve Norton that he’s not as bad as he’s painted, sending him to a couple of alternate universes, where Norton battles bug-eyed monsters and rescue damsels in distress. I found the contribution made to the over-arching plot quite thin, and overall the novel was less satisfying that its predecessor, possibly in part because the nature of Chronos’ office means he has less interaction with the other Incarnations, or with other living beings in general. And although Time is a powerful entity, unlike Death, Time doesn’t seem to have much to do at all – I wondered what he’s be occupying himself with when he wasn’t being sent hither and yon by Satan, or rectifying the consequences of his own mistakes.
On the other hand, this does form an integral link in the series, and should be read for that reason, and reading it wasn’t an experience wholly devoid of pleasure. Which I realise is lukewarm praise. – Alex