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on September 27, 2011
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.
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on September 26, 2011
I read this book in two days. Started it Saturday night, finished it Sunday night, and had to slow myself down so that I wouldn't skim. It's hard to write a review without giving away a plot twist (or maybe it isn't a plot twist--it could all be in my head) at the end. If you like reading Jack Finney's novels (time travel), enjoyed Tom Perrotta's "The Leftovers," (somewhat post-apocalyptic) and are into revisionist history, this book is for you. It's such a juicy treat, because it is everything in one.

In The Revisionists, the apocalypse has already happened in one form or another, and the new world has been created. People from the future go back to the past to "protect" the events in the past to preserve the so-called "perfect present" in the future. They have to get back before the "Hags" (History altering something) who want to prevent bad events in the past (9/11 to give an example) from happening. As you read the book, you see that the present isn't as perfect as you're originally led to believe. You also learn more information that calls into question your understanding of the book premise.

Does that sound confusing? It kind of is! But, in a good way! Mystery lovers, history lovers, speculative fiction lovers, buy this book. You won't regret it. (I also loved Mullen's "Last Town on Earth," too.)
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Mullen's third novel, a dystopian time-travel, was drowned out in the literary world by Stephen King's time travel epic, 11/22/63. Actually, both novels are ideal as bookends; in King's book, the protagonist goes back in time to try and alter history, whereas Mullen's protagonist, Zed, is an agent from the future employed to preserve history exactly as it is and prevent disruption or changes. If you add Orwell's 1984 (constant surveillance) and Farenheit 451 (destruction of historical documents), you have a riff of Mullen's themes. However, he created his own artistic, original, and literary novel that asks disturbing questions from all sides and parallels many of the contemporary concerns of our post 9/11 world.

Date unknown, but we have survived the "Great Conflagration," a period of warfare and global destruction that started in Washington, D.C. during the 21st century and led to the now "Perfect Present." The Perfect Present is canny once you understand that this semi-utopian existence is a mixed bag. Yes, there is world peace, no hunger, and no religious wars (and no religion), and race is essentially a non-issue, as everyone is mixed.

But, at what cost this Perfect Present? For one thing, all history is sacred, yet exiled from citizens' knowledge. The past is considered dangerous, because it is psychologically and socially harmful to dwell on the events that caused wars and disasters. The government forbids historical knowledge to circulate; moreover, when a loved one dies, all traces of them are erased in a haunting and treacherous manner.

Zed, a government-employed time-traveler, is known as a Protector, another sly term used to denote the active preservation of history, a euphemism for protecting atrocities such as the Holocaust, 9/11, and World Wars--necessary in order to ensure that the Perfect Present now exists. Zed is cybernetically enhanced with the power of GPS and has superhuman surveillance skills. His "contemp" (21st century) name is Troy Jones.

Certain rebels or "hags" are anti-government agitators who believe that people deserve to know their history, and part of their job is finding ways to access hidden and confidential historical documents. The hags travel back to the past and attempt to prevent specific horrors from occurring. These time travels provoke cat-and-mouse chases between the Protectors and the hags. Zed's job is to eliminate the hags and protect the Perfect Present.

This is as much a novel of ideas as it is a spy thriller. Characters wrestle with themes of protection vs power, of morality vs truth, and also grapple with identity, memory, and loss. In addition, the question of life's narrative is ubiquitous in the story--continuity, progression, recall, and interpretation. Moreover, how do you preserve history, when you are standing in it? What happens if you get involved with a person from the past? Supposedly, some people count more than others, and minor changes with insignificant members of the population don't necessarily affect the future. But Zed is standing close to the precipice, facing a steep chasm of people and history, flirting with fissures.

Tasha is a young corporate lawyer in D.C. grieving for her soldier brother's death in Iraq, and troubled by the information she was given. She doesn't believe the government's story about what happened, which leads her on a mission of her own, and a potentially perilous breach of ethics. She meets Zed at a demonstration. He is breaking the rules by consorting with "contemps," but figures that there will be no butterfly effect from his interactions with her.

Leo is a former CIA spy now working for a morally ambiguous security company. He is asked to tail some anti-government/anti-war activists in the D.C. area. While grocery shopping, he meets a beautiful Indonesian nanny, Sari, who works for a Korean diplomat and his wife. Her inscrutable air fails to conceal some ugly facial bruises, but she isn't talking.

The twists and turns are about two steps ahead of the reader, but with a casual pace that burns slowly and effectively, allowing time for character building and depth, and for ideas to flesh out. And, no matter how refined the technology, everyone is damaged and, to some extent, working with crude tools. And, as in life, not all questions can be resolved. But there's love, and a knock at the door. Will (s)he answer it?
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on October 2, 2011
Lately I seem to be reading a lot of time manipulative books. Between The Revisionists, The Map of Time and the newest Lawhead series, someone seems to have put out a memo screaming ... "MESS WITH TIME, IT WILL MESS WITH YOUR READERS!". Because that's what messing with time does; it messes with my head.

The Revisionists is a fascinating look at "what if". What if you could go back in time to fix a wrong, to stop Hitler, to prevent the assassination of Lincoln.. you get the point. What if, in fixing those wrongs and saving those lives - from one to millions, you changed a world that was "perfect" in the future to an "unknown" type of future. Would it be worth it? Who makes that decision?

Thomas Mullen deals with those questions and more in The Revisionists. The "good guys" are those who are going back in time to stop the past from being rewritten. There's action, adventure, quite a bit of science and a whole lot of fun in this book. But, again, it messed with my mind, as all time traveling stories seem to do.

I think, though, that The Revisionists puts a really new, interesting twist on it all. It addresses new and old political crises, as well as puts the reader in the spot of needing to choose a side as they read through the story. Fascinating book and I'll be on the lookout for more from Mullen in the future.
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on October 19, 2012
Fiction has always had its "genres", each of which has its rules and cliches: Literary Fiction is meant to involve timely issues and recognizably contemporary characters to whom we can relate on an emotional level; Spy Novels and Thrillers are meant to dazzle us with their clever plot turns and action; Science Fiction has always involved speculative technology, future worlds, and perhaps some implied commentary on the state of our own world. Today's best fiction willingly, even eagerly, crosses these boundaries in the hopes of achieving all these things at once, and very few books of my acquaintance do so quite as successfully as this one. On one level we meet two women dealing with difficult and emotional personal issues; on another level we find two spies, one from our time and one from the future, who become involved with these women. At the same time the spies, being spies, are dealing with various plots and counter-plots of their own, including some "Historical Agitators" who have also traveled back in time with the aim of altering history. The author skillfully weaves all these complex story lines together and fashions a very satisfying conclusion. Along the way there are some trenchant critiques of our society and subtle hints of what the future will bring. This is entertainment of the highest order.
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on October 30, 2011
I ordered this from Amazon after reading some favorable reviews. And I've been a sucker for well-written time travel stories since the 1960s. (However, being into physics, I realize the logical flaws, the causal implications of going back in time, the Grandfather Paradox, and various attempts to work-around such paradoxes. Still, I eagerly read time travel stories and novels.)

This book is very well-written, with nicely drawn characters and smooth, natural attention to detail. Some of the descriptions of things in the D.C. area, where I grew up in the 1960s, are spot-on. Some of the descriptions of little bits of everyday things are evocative. Just for starters, and I do mean starters, the opening line is:

"A trio of bulbous SUVs passes sleekly by, gliding through their world like seals." Every page has descriptions like this, conveying the world. (Oh, and that line takes place in the present, though the phrasing almost suggests a future world....if a reader didn't know what SUVs are, he might think it's a future world.)

I also like thrillers, especially techno-thrillers. This has those elements.

But here are the SPOILERS. This discussion won't mean anything to those who haven't read the book.

SPOILER alert, again.

As the Future Perfect world was described, it seemed distant, not real. And the details were lacking. How did the time travel work? How were the agents supposed to signal to get back? Why were the events all building up to the mysterious Conflagration, said to be just days off in the future?

Oh, and the logical problems with time travel were nagging me the whole time. A couple of the characters--Zed/Troy and Wills, said to be another agent--even had some discussions about this. The present was drawn very realistically. (I should throw in that some of the back stories, about Leo's time in Djakarta, about the Korean diplomat's wife and her escape from North Korea, and others, were themselves compelling bits of story-telling. I was even reminded of how Pynchon in "Gravity's Rainbow" could throw in a several-page short story in the midst of the favorite was the fantastical story of "Byron the Bulb."

And so I began to wonder just what was going on. The time travel story wasn't really convincing me....I just didn't buy it.

Last chance to avoid a SPOILER.

And so when the revelations came about Troy, the supposedly real Troy that Zed was made to appear as, had lost his family in a car accident and then started to act crazily, I had a realization:

Troy had a background in intercepts, was clearly technically sophisticated, and had a schizophrenic break at some point after his wife and child died in the traffic accident. Maybe he wanted them back. Maybe he saw time travel as some way to restore the "Present Perfect." Maybe he felt guilty about his wife's uncle and his government's role in imprisoning him. He leaves the NSA-affiliated company, Enhanced Awareness, he begins to scribble notes and charts and do searches. He spins a web of plots.

And he imagines himself a time cop, an agent sent back in time. Does he really have any special tools with him? His brain implants seem to be fried early on. He claims he can direct his mind to listen in on phone conversations. Pretty a delusional person. (I started to write "paranoid schizophrenic," but I have no idea which description would fit this.). He might be like the Russel Crowe character, John Nash, in "A Beautiful Mind" or the Mel Gibson character in "Conspiracy Theory. But instead of walls covered with photos and newspaper clippings, he carries around a briefcase everywhere he goes that is stuffed with scraps of papers, dossiers that appear to be based on Google searches, and links drawn between different players. Oh, and an "impossibly thin" (says a character who sees it) laptop, but then she says it's half an inch thick. A MacBook Air? Any former NSA/Enhanced Awareness employee would easily have such a thing.

His "stunner"? No real description is given. Sounds like a normal spark-type stun gun, powered by a 9-volt battery. When Zed/Troy actually does kill someone, he uses a gun that he believes was made for him by the technicians in the future. How about the "flasher," the thing which leaves a burned spot where the target was. Maybe a delusion, maybe he's disposed of some of his targets with some gasoline. The poison in the coffee cup at the hotel, which Zed/Troy was at.

Anyway, I set the book down at this point, the revelation by Troy's former boss at Enhanced Awareness about how Troy had gone off the rails and vanished. I was convinced this was what the novel was about, about the power of a delusion to cause a person to believe he's correcting wrongs, or making sure they happen.

The next morning I finished the novel. Right at the point I stopped reading the night before, the novel doesn't go in the direction I expected it to.

But neither is there any more proof, even within the universe of the novel, that Zed/Troy is not the Troy who once worked at the NSA. No mention of his burned body actually being found in the ruins of his house (though Zed had hinted that this "would" happen, future tense). No messages from the future telling him to return.

And the ending is ambiguous, with Troy--this is what Tasha knew him as, obviously--in Tasha's house.

So, I still think this is a plausible interpretation. Perhaps this is the ending to the novel I would've written.

(Or maybe Mullen doesn't think this needs further explanation.)

In my world view, there can't be time travel, but there can be powerful thoughts, even delusions.

Anyway, a thought-provoking novel. I plan to read the other couple of his works.

--Tim May, Corralitos, California
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on July 18, 2013
Truly enjoyed Thomas Mullen's writing as well as his story, evocative of Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake. Will be looking for other books of his. Also tapped into an online interview/blog with him and he was very dry and funny.
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on October 29, 2011
Author: Thomas Mullen
Title: The Revisionists
Description : The books opens as we meet Z, a "revisionist" who has been sent from the "Perfect Future" to make sure that the future stays that way. His opponents are the "hags," time-traveling rebels who attempt to change the future by preventing certain events from happening. After Z makes sure that a certain journalist will indeed be murdered, the point of view shifts to three other protagonists: Sari, a beautiful young Indonesian domestic worker who is trapped in her horrific employment by her lack of documentation and her inability to speak or understand English; Leo, a former CIA agent who, a bit at loose ends after his CIA gig went bad, works for some kind of intelligence-gathering company; and Tasha, a lawyer on the fringes of activism who is of interest to both Leo and Z.
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: The plot is riveting. Even though the action alternates among the four main characters, the reader is not confused about what's going on. Mullen manages to describe the action clearly without revealing motives too soon. During a good amount of the book, the reader wonders how all four of these characters will eventually connect, but there is no doubt that will eventually happen.
Characters: The four main characters form two loose couples: Z and Tasha know one another, and Leo and Sari know one another. As the point of view moves from one to another, each character reveals enough of his or her past to become familiar and sympathetic to the reader. Z is the only character who is written in first-person, and there is no doubt that he is the primary protagonist. He also has the most backstory, though all of the characters have some history.
Writing style: This was my first book by Mullen, and I thought it was brilliant. He kept the plot spinning, drew the characters finely, and still managed to ask the big philosophical questions that make a book memorable.
Audience: While its genre is technically time-travel sci fi, this book will be of interest to readers of literary fiction as well.
Wrap-up: What is the nature of history? If people lose their past, how much of themselves do they lose with it? Is murder ever justified? Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? These questions are the kind that keep getting raised by this book; all the while we're trying to fight off fiendish bosses, mourning lost loved ones, and trying to figure out the moral conundrums of postmodern life with the characters of The Revisionists. 4/5*
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I pushed and pushed my way through the first half of the book - long past the point where I expected to be hooked and unable to put it down - or, in the alternative, toss it aside.

Unfortunately, it took a good three quarters of the story to really interest me. There was too much complexity to the mystery - too many mysteries and too many characters with too little to care about.

I wished there was more focus on the time-traveling Z, his society, and the big event that he was trying to preserve.

Sadly the author does such a good job of explaining varying socio-political viewpoints that this reader lost interest in the plot.

Perhaps in a future perfect world wherein I were smarter, I might have liked The Revisionists more.
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on May 7, 2012
Overall I enjoyed this book very much. There were a few flaws though. When I was about three quarters of the way through the book I ran into a few chapters that I just couldn't place in the context of the book. The ending is good though. I think the point-of-view writing is a good technique, but the choice of names in this book is a bit confusing. There is one main character going by the name Troy Jones and another named T.J. The two important women in the book are Sasha and Sari. The change in Troy Jones beliefs is not well enough developed and needs some additional exposition. But, overall, this is a very interesting book.
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