Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book reviews

I thought I'd do the occasional book review. In my effort to be as eclectic as possible, let's start with Emperor, by Stephen Baxter. This is a book that bills itself as "alternate history," but it was mislabeled as such. It takes place over many generations, and while there are hints of some kind of supernatural "weaver" of Time's tapestry who is trying to interfere with the timeline by means of a mystical Latin prophecy, I was disappointed that the centuries passed by (and yes, it was a bit of a slog to get through, so that part felt realistic) and there was no noticeable deviation from History-As-We-Know-It. This is book one of a 4-book cycle, but I just wasn't enticed to read further. The structure of the story meant that none of the characters lasted through the book. And really, there was no great reason to like any of them that much, or to know why we should care about their Prophecy. There are hints that the author was going to take the tired line that Constantine and Augustine co-opted Christianity and attempt to propose an alternate universe where authentic primitive Christianity prevailed. If he had been successful at describing this, I would have been irritated by the worldview, but at least it would have been artistically consistent with what he seemed to be setting out to do.

It reads well as a work of historical fiction. Depictions of the building of Roman roads, the movement of the legions, and the political maneuvering behind Roman rule ring very true. And Baxter has a much better prose style than the other primary author of alternate history I have read, Harry Turtledove. Turtledove's Crosstime Traffic series is constantly having to break into didactic mode to explain the breakpoint in the timelines; but his imagination is so inventive I don't mind. Baxter, however, wasn't able to hook me despite well-rendered characters, impeccable historical detail, and the clever acrostic Latin prophecy that served as the framework for it all. I wanted to like this book. But it just missed the mark.

Cautions: violence (brutality, actually), adult situations, and a sense of futility.
Of interest to: Fans of ancient-era historical fiction with long attention spans.

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