Bearing an Hourglass

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Bearing an Hourglass
Paperback book cover
Author Piers Anthony
Series Incarnations of Immortality
Genre Fantasy
Publisher Del Rey Books
Publication date
Media type Hardcover
Pages 293
ISBN 978-0-345-31314-0
OCLC 10507643
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3551.N73 B4 1984
Preceded by On A Pale Horse
Followed by With a Tangled Skein

Bearing an Hourglass is a fantasy novel by Piers Anthony. It is the second of eight books in the Incarnations of Immortality series.

Plot introduction[edit]

Norton accepts the position of incarnation of Time and continues his life living backwards in time.

Plot summary[edit]

Some time in the future (as evidenced by technology in use that is much more advanced than in the first story), Norton—a man of about forty—is living a life of nomadic wandering when a ghost named Gawain asks him to father a child to his widow, Orlene, with whom Norton eventually falls in love. Gawain then asks Gaea, the Incarnation of Nature, to make the child in his own likeness so his bloodline would continue. Unfortunately, the child ends up dead due to a disease that runs in Gawain's family. Orlene then commits suicide.

Feeling depressed about the disastrous results of his affair with Orlene, Norton is approached by Gawain again, who offers Norton the position of Time (Chronos), where he must rule over all Earthly aspects of time. Gawain explains to Norton that Chronos lives backwards in time until the moment of the birth—or conception, it is never made clear—of the office holder's previous self, who is still living forwards. The ghost baits Norton, explaining to him that, by living backwards, he can continue to see Orlene, since she is still alive in the past. Norton accepts, and Gawain leads him to the spot where the future office holder of Time, Norton's predecessor, will pass the hourglass onto Norton.

Norton immediately starts literally living life backwards in time, though he can temporarily go forward to interact with others. However, when he is living backwards, he is not visible to mortals. Norton experiments with his hourglass, recognised by all the Incarnations as being the most powerful magical device in the world, to halt and/or reverse time, travel many millions of years into the Earth's past, and work with the Incarnation of Fate, who needs his hourglass to help fix tangles in her threads of fate.

Because Norton lives backwards in time, his past is everyone else's future, making him an isolated character even among the other Incarnations. He also realises that this will make it impossible to have a relationship with the forward-living Orlene. He does, however, have an affair with Clotho, the youngest aspect of Fate. This is both awkward and intriguing to Norton since her past is his future.

At his new residence in Purgatory, Norton is then visited by Satan, who informs Norton that while he can travel anywhere in time with his hourglass, he cannot leave Earth. Satan claims to have the power to travel the whole universe, since evil permeates all of reality, and gives Norton some samples of this ability by having him travel to other planets where, Satan claims, time flows backwards, allowing Norton to live normally and to get involved in both a space opera ("Bat Durston and the BEMS") and an epic fantasy adventure. Satan offers Norton the ability to have that power if Norton will grant Satan a favour; to go back in time 20 years and save a man from committing suicide.

Norton goes back in time to check out this young man, but after consulting with the other Incarnations, he is informed that this man is the current office holder of the Incarnation of Death (Thanatos—in other words, Zane, from the previous novel) and that it is Zane's attempted suicide that brought him to that position. This man is needed as Thanatos to protect his girlfriend, Luna Kaftan, from Satan's mischief so she can go into politics and fulfill a prophecy of thwarting Satan.

However, a relic Satan had given Norton turned out to be a demon in disguise. When Norton went back in time, the demon disembarked a few years in the past to prevent Luna from going into politics (the demon gives an incumbent politician an antidote to keep him alive so Luna doesn't take his place). Due to some of the limitations of the hourglass, intercepting this demon is difficult, but Norton eventually manages to stop it.

Not giving up, Satan tries one more time by trapping Norton on one of the other planets he had an adventure on. Not sure how to get back home, Norton starts toying with the hourglass, travelling all the way back to the beginning of the observable universe and all the way to its end (from the big bang to the point where all matter became trapped in black holes) and realises that, since the Incarnations' magic does not extend beyond Earth, his adventures on other planets were illusions created by Satan, and that Norton had, in fact, never left Earth.

Norton then finds out that the demon that created the illusion had been attached to him and, once again, disembarked at a point in the past, two years after the events of the first book, to begin a campaign to discredit Luna so she doesn't run for office. Norton then goes back in time to this point and uses his hourglass to show the world all the bad things that will happen if Luna doesn't get elected. As Norton is no longer fooled by Satan's illusions, Satan stops trying to exploit him.

Time's accoutrements[edit]


Time's hourglass is recognised as the most powerful single item any Incarnation possesses, and it is all Chronos needs. It has an incredibly large variety of functions, all controlled by Time's will. It can move Chronos forward or backward in time, reverse his personal time to allow him to interact with others, and pause time for himself or his local area (which is not a true stasis, as most of the world continues as normal. How this syncs up is never explained, it is simply magic). He can reverse time temporarily in an area, which simply rewinds a scene without the mortal participants being aware of it, which allows him to choose another course for it. He can also choose to put the entire world into stasis, or even reverse time for the entire world, which he is forced to do at one point. In addition, Time's hourglass is also his method of travel. By selectively moving himself slightly out of sync with the Earth's rotation and orbit as he travels in time, he can use it to travel in space. This travel is, of course, failsafed to not allow him to end up in deep space or inside a wall or the earth itself. Time's Hourglass cannot be broken or lost, as any attempt to leave it behind will simply cause it to float at the same relative distance it was released. It can, however, be folded up for easy storage, and it still functions just as well.


Much like the other Incarnations, Time's Robe protects him from any kind of physical harm. Like the other incarnations, he is immortal and cannot be killed before it is time to pass on the office. Anything attempting to attack him would be immediately aged into oblivion upon contact. His robe is also the default area for his personal time flow, though he can of course expand it to bring other things along with him when he travels.


While not an official device of Time, Sning is a valuable companion to Norton throughout his career. A demonic, though benign, creature, it takes the form of a ring in the shape of a snake (where it gets the name Norton gave it, standing for SNake rING). While not omniscient, Sning has an incredible amount of information, and appears to be able to learn many things about creatures just by touching them. It can respond to any question asked of it by squeezing the wearer's finger – one squeeze for yes, two for no, three for uncertainty, complex answers, or inability to answer (for example, if the asker foolishly poses a non-yes/no question). It can also answer with squeezes representing a number, though Sning is actually quite bad at math, much to its embarrassment. In addition, it is capable of coming alive briefly, scouting an area, and reporting back. While alive, it is approximately six inches long, though it is shown that he can grow, and also poisonous. Its poison is strong enough to make a creature the size of a man sick for several hours, but not to kill.

Sning has a long and complex history, originally belonging to Mym, the prince fated to become the Incarnation of War. He later gave it to Orb, the eventual Incarnation of Nature, when they were forced to part, who gave it to her daughter Orlene, the eventual Incarnation of Good. She eventually bestowed it to Norton as a gift. Despite being in the possession of four major incarnations, Sning was actually only named by Norton and he was the only one to use him during his actual time as an Incarnation.

Method of transfer[edit]

Time, because of his nature, is the only Incarnation that is actually required to pass along his office at an exact schedule. Though Time can travel to any period, he cannot actually interact with the world outside the span of his own lifetime. Thus, as he lives backwards, when his lifetime is up he must pass on the office to an heir. Though he has some ability to plan the transfer, the exact timing and the fact that he lives backwards means he has very little ability to actually enact it. He is forced to simply leave the Hourglass and hope whoever he has set up to take it does so. The Hourglass will entice those around it to pick it up, for there must be an Incarnation of Time, but it does not always go smoothly. There is one instance mentioned where the proposed new officeholder refused the position, and it fell to a nearby seven-year-old boy who happened to pick up the Hourglass. Again, though the position would appear to be gender neutral, it is traditionally held by a male.

Time's dominion[edit]

Time is responsible for scheduling all human events to make sure everything runs smoothly, and the natural laws like cause and effect are honoured. He works most closely with Fate, helping her to fix crossed threads, caused by human error or simply random chance. He also schedules notable births and deaths, important events in people's lives and in history, and makes sure the flow of time remains stable when it is bent, as it is by his allowance that the other Incarnations are also capable of local timestops. He is also responsible for guaranteeing that the course of history flows as it should. As Time, he is immune to paradox, and to the possibility of multiple futures. Should actions occur to change the course of the future, his memories will change with it. However, typically his original memories are accepted as the desirable ones, as one of his major tasks is to make sure it does not get changed around without adequate reason. This is, of course, why he lives backwards – he would be unable to properly deal with making the future happen as planned if he was unaware of the plan.

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Jackie Cassada in the Library Journal review says that "Amid weighty and often convoluted speculations about the nature of good and evil, time and space, and magic and science, Anthony's irrepressible humor asserts itself in unexpected ways. Far from being grim – or even allegorical – this sequel to On a Pale Horse will appeal to Anthony's large readership."[1]


  1. ^ Cassada, Jackie (1 August 1984). "Bearing a Hourglass (Book)". Library Journal. 109 (13): 1470. ISSN 0363-0277. 

External links[edit]