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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Emperor by Stephen Baxter

Emperor (Time's Tapestry: Book 1) by Stephen Baxter. New York: Ace Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-441-01466-8

All too often I find my reading habits controlled or at least strongly influenced by what books my local branch library chooses to put on the new book display. Whenever I'm in the library, I take a look to see if there's anything of interest there, on that ubiquitous new books shelf. Now, having picked up and having read this book, Emperor, which is the first in a new series by Baxter, I went back and checked the science fiction author index here on my blog, and the last book I read by Baxter was ALSO the first in a series, but a series, the rest of which I somehow never got around to reading. Most likely because they never showed up on the new books shelf.

My eternal lament: so many books, so little time. So I read and blogged Coalescent: Destiny's Children, Book 1 (2003), back in 2005, but I've never read the rest of the series, Exultant (2004), Transcendent (2005), and Resplendent (2006). My, this guy is prolific! And apparently a really fast writer. Here Emperor has a 2007 copyright date listed, although apparently it was actually released in July, 2006 (that's a bit strange, although I'm guessing the 2007 date is the U.S. copyright, and that the July release was in Great Britain, since Baxter is a British writer), and already two of its 3 sequels are in print: Conqueror (February, 2007) and Navigator (July, 2007), with the fourth title, Weaver, scheduled for release sometime this month, and already available for pre-order on Amazon.

Emperor says right on the cover that Time Tapestry is “An alternate history epic,” but so far, I'm not quite sure what's alternate about it. Maybe I'm ignorant, but reading this book, I had no idea what aspects of it, if any, constitute alternate history. I'm familiar with the broad outlines of British history only, and if there are any significant events in this book that differ from how it really happened, I didn't recognize them.

Other than the mysterious prophecy, uttered at the very beginning of the novel by a woman who falls into a trance during labor, a prophecy she babbles out in Latin, a language she doesn't even know. A prophecy which has a direct quote (when translated into English) from the American Declaration of Independence (!). But that seems like no more than local color, to me. Every novel has fictional events in it. That's what fiction is, by definition! Baxter provides no explanation (science fictional or otherwise) for how this prophecy was generated in this apparently supernatural manner.

The rest of the story is the tale of a single family of native Britons, Brigantians by tribe, through four centuries of Roman rule in Britain. One branch of the family makes it all the way to wealth and Rome, returning to Britain several generations later only to be thrown into abject slavery of the worst kind, the prophecy lost. I don't quite comprehend the point or purpose of it all.

Baxter's writing seems a bit facile to me, which is born out at least somewhat by his prolific volume. I haven't read enough of his works to make a definitive assessment, but while eminently readable, so far I'd have to judge them peripheral, not essential reading for current science fiction fans. Reluctantly recommended.

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