The Tea Machine

The Tea Machine
Gill McKnight

Reviewed by A. L. Brooks

Fancy a romp through space and time, visiting alternate realities (or are they parallel universes?) inhabited by Colossal space squid, a Roman Empire gone slightly out of whack, and lots of time for tea? Then this is the book for you.

The title of the book seems to be partly a nod towards H. G. Wells’ classic, “The Time Machine”, but more a reference to the importance of tea—its consumption, it’s very English ceremony and its industry—throughout the narrative. The book is part one of Gill McKnight’s “The Teatime Chronicles”, with book two due out in 2017. In this first chapter of the saga, Gill McKnight (author of the acclaimed Garoul werewolf series) has written a fantastic tale of time travel that has elements of steampunk, ancient history, social politics and lesbian love woven throughout.

Beginning in 1862 we meet Millicent, the clever—and somewhat feisty—sister of Hubert, a gentleman of independent means who spends his days squirreled away in his laboratory. Millicent inadvertently travels through time via the machine that Hubert has been quietly building, and materializes on a space ship caught up in a fierce battle between Roman legionnaires and Colossal space squid. In the midst of the battle she is rescued by—and then has to watch die—Sangfroid, the butch commander of the legionnaires. After Sangfroid dies in the attempted rescue of Millicent and the crew of the ship, Millicent is pulled back to her own time, and she immediately sets out to return, with the aim of preventing Sangfroid’s death.

And so begins an extremely clever, hilariously funny and sometimes incredibly thought-provoking yarn about the layers of time, and how the interaction between timelines could cause havoc. McKnight writes about the complexities of time travel, and all that could go wrong with it, in such a way as to make it very believable and understandable. There are a lot of strands in this story but each layer that is revealed is presented to us in an easy-to-follow style. Underlying the frivolity of the squid, the tea and the domestic arguments between Millicent, Hubert and Hubert’s unfortunate fiancée, is a much more serious commentary on the impacts of industry on less-developed societies, the power of religion and the social inequalities between cultures.

There are sections that are brutally realistic, and not for the faint-hearted (think of gladiator games in a Roman coliseum), and you may need to brace yourself somewhat for reading through those. But, in contrast, the romance between Millicent and Sangfroid is played out in a delightfully subtle way—hints of it appear throughout the story, with nothing too overt or explicit, and yet you know it is there, tingling away underneath the surface throughout the book. And the whole thing ends on an amusing and intriguing cliffhanger that sets things up very nicely for book two.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, having never read anything quite like it in the lesbian fiction genre before. If you are looking for something very different from the regular ‘girl-meets-girl’ storyline that encompasses a lot of our genre (which, trust me, I still enjoy!), then get yourself a copy of “The Tea Machine”. I, for one, can’t wait for book two…

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