Thirteen-year old James awakens in the night to discover things are no longer as they should be and he is now with the Greeks at Troy, 8,000 years ago. His only connection to home is an old watch, presented to him by his grandfather on his deathbed, which allows him to travel back in time with one mission: to save history.
He helps Odysseus, a Greek commander, on a scouting mission and they establish a close bond, with parallels to his aspiring relationship with his own dad, while James is a surrogate for the son Odysseus has not seen since he left home nine years ago.
James is confronted by good and evil within the Greek camp and observes the differing rights and roles of men and women seen through his relationship with a young serving girl who seems to know more than she should. In observing the similarities and contrasts with the modern age he recognises that little has changed.
James is able to draw upon his knowledge of history to help Odysseus make the right choices including constructing the wooden horse that finally allows the Greeks to overcome Troy. In victory he is confronted by the harsh reality that the winner really does take all and the parallels with catastrophic events in the modern age.
James turns down Odysseus’ plea to return home with him; he knows that no one who travels with him will make it back. He arranges for the serving girl to travel with Nestor, the only one he knows returns safely to his kingdom despite the absence.
Back home he wonders if it was a dream but then remembers his grandfather’s words which herald further adventure and the beginning of a series of books where James travels back in time to take on other challenges, to make a difference and save history.
An epilogue provides historical context and, as well as referring to events that came afterwards, challenges the reader on how much of the story may in fact be true.
James woke with a start. It felt very cool, not cold, but a slight breeze was playing around him. His bedside light was off but he could detect the landing light reaching into his room. He felt safe.
Actually, now he thought about it, it was a little bit cold. He couldn’t tell what the time was but maybe his Dad had opened the windows, it had been hot earlier in the evening. But he wouldn’t have opened them at night time. Maybe it’s blowing a bit of a gale and the breeze is coming in from the bathroom window? His Dad always left it slightly open for fresh air. James grimaced as he recalled his Dad always stressing the importance of fresh air and if you were not out in it then more important that you got some in the house.
Funny sayings his Dad used to come out with. He remembered the funniest one when they went to an open-air theatre event and it was raining and they were getting soaked through and he proclaimed, ‘well, it’s good for the land’. He smiled as he remembered. He wished he saw more of his Dad.
He shook himself. That didn’t matter now. Now, well, it was so quiet. Too quiet. There was a noise to all this silence that he could not work out. He could really hear that breeze as well as feel it. And then there was a sudden blast of cold. He shrunk into himself and reached for his duvet to roll over and into the bed and the warmth of his own body.
But there was no duvet, just some fleece-like cover that did not feel quite right. James knew he wasn’t properly awake and things do not always feel right when you are half asleep but his bed did not feel like it should do, it felt hard and lumpy and unforgiving and now he was making shapes out in the dark. He was confused. He hated making shapes out in the dark. He closed his eyes. I will go back to sleep, he convinced himself.
But he couldn’t sleep. And his bed didn’t feel like his bed. And the cover was not his duvet to snuggle into. And he knew something was not right. He opened his eyes, and as they became more accustomed to the dark, he could make out scrubland around him, he could better sense the shapes in the dark. He realised the dull glow was not from the landing light but from above him, it was moon-like, casting shadows around him but enough light to take in the shimmering water away in the distance reflecting light and shadows and shapes everywhere. What was going on?
He could feel the gale blowing around him, he could hear the whistling sounds as it squeezed and crept its way through the gorse that made his ‘room’.
James felt afraid. He did not know where he was. Maybe it was a bad dream, a nightmare. Maybe if he closed his eyes it would all go away and he would wake up in the morning and laugh about it.
He closed his eyes. He opened them again. Nothing had changed. He was not at home. He sensed a dull throb on his chest and reached inside his top – not his pyjama top, what was he wearing? – and there was the old watch his grandfather had given him on the night he had died along with a story about the family being of Huguenot stock, who had settled in the north-west of England, and who used to make time pieces. Then he had pulled James in close and told him that really they made time and he had laughed. He said James was next in line, that the watch was now his, to travel through time and make sure history run its true course. He shook his head, it all seemed so silly, so made-up. And wasn’t his Grandad always making jokes at his expense? But he liked the watch because it reminded him of his Grandad. He looked at it closely, he had been playing with it before he fell asleep but now the hands stood still, no ticking, no nothing. What was going on? I must be dreaming.
This isn’t real. It can’t be real. It must be a nightmare, he was caught in a nightmare, and he had to wake up to escape it. Well he was not that frightened. Nothing scary was happening but he was confused. How do you wake up from a bad dream? I will pinch myself, he thought. He had read that somewhere, that is what you do. He wondered why he knew things like this, how he collected these little facts that did not get him marks at school. What was it his Grandad had used to say? The usefulness of useless knowledge. Ah, but he knew this one would be useful.
He tentatively grabbed at his leg to pinch it but his hand slipped away, there was little to grab hold of on a young boy’s leg. He reached for his other arm and squeezed and pinched at a little fold of skin. Ouch, that hurt, he thought as he half sat up. But nothing had changed.
James was confused. He did not know this place; he did not know how he had come to be here. He wanted to be home, he wanted to be snuggled up with his Dad right now and know he was safe. And why was everything so strange yet he had the old watch with him? What did it mean? Was there something in what his Grandad had told him?
And then a shadow fell across him and James was truly afraid because now it was dark. And there was someone standing over him. And it was not his Dad.