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Empress Of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr

01/06/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

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pub: TOR. 352 page hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2664-5).

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‘Empress Of Eternity’ is a standalone Science Fiction novel by the prolific author L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Having enjoyed his last SF novel, ‘Haze’, I was keen to see what he would do this time. I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed.

‘Empress Of Eternity’ is set on a far-future Earth. Almost all of the action is centred around a small tower overlooking the ocean at the western end of a two thousand mile long artificial canal which runs East to West across the middle of Earth’s main continent. This canal is made from some form of artificial stone, is completely indestructible and does not warm up in the sun or cool down in the snow. It is, in other words, a total mystery. Attempts to unravel the canal’s secrets are central to the story.

What makes this novel simultaneously fascinating and potentially confusing is that it is comprised of three parallel narratives. Each is centred on the tower at the end of the canal, overlooking the sea. What differs between them is the date. The three storylines are separated from each other by hundreds of thousands of years, sufficient time for entire civilisations to have fallen and new ones to have arisen. In each of the three epochs, we follow a man and woman as they try to fathom the secrets of the canal, seen in each society as a technological miracle and the potential source of a solution to the environmental catastrophes befalling them.

The first storyline is set in the Unity of Caelaarn in the year 1351 in their calendar. This is a deferential, feudal society, although it has access to advanced technologies, most of which are biological rather than mechanical in origin. The government of Caelaarn is trying to deal with social tensions arising from their slow but continuous descent into an Ice Age. The protagonists here are Lord Maertyn, an aristocratic scientist who also holds a government post as Deputy Assistant Science Minister and his wife, Maarlyna, who is recovering from some kind of medical condition. When Lord Maertyn is recalled to the capital city to report on his research, it quickly becomes clear that there are forces within the government who are prepared to assassinate him rather than let the science ministry take ownership of the canal’s secrets.

Storyline two takes place in Caelaarn’s future, in the year 2471 of the Ruche Empire (RE), a militaristic society of telepathic individuals organised on a hive-like basis. In this period, the environmental problem is global warming. The story focuses on Eltyn and Faelyna, male and female scientists who are hoping that unlocking the secrets of the canal will help them find a solution to climate change. When a military coup leaves them without allies, Eltyn and Faelyna lock themselves into the tower and keep working, even as the new anti-science regime tries to get them out.

The third storyline is set in the Vaniran Hegemony, year 3123. This society appears to be based on Norse mythology, with the two main ethnic groups within the hegemony being the Vanir and the Aesyr, the latter of which have used selective breeding to create an army of soldiers, all of whom look like Thor. Like the Caelaarnians, they are threatened by a looming Ice Age. The two main characters here are Helkyria, a female scientist who also holds military rank and her partner, Duhyle, a male technician. As with their predecessors, they are trying to discover the secrets of the canal in order to combat falling global temperatures and the political instability that goes with it. However, when the Aesyr decide that the canal is a strategic military asset worth going to war over, Helkyria and Duhyle soon find themselves under siege.

Modesitt rotates between these three time periods in strict order, chapter by chapter, so you need your wits about you to keep all three of these very similar storylines distinct in your head as you switch from one to the next every few pages.

There are many things to admire in this book. First and foremost, this is an interesting and enjoyable story and Modesitt made me want to know what would happen next all the way through until he unveils the secrets of the canal at the very end. Second, the author sets himself the challenging task of telling his story through three very similar parallel storylines. This could have gone horribly wrong. However, to my mind he pulls it off, differentiating the epochs and main characters sufficiently to enable the reader to understand what’s going on. Third, he uses this unusual set-up to let him examine how a single problem may be approached in different ways, depending not just on the individual but also on the society within which they are based, a method he uses to good effect. Fourth, he uses all three of his storylines to shine a light on important contemporary political and military issues, including torture, the use of human shields, propaganda, war crimes, collateral damage and political assassination.

On the downside, I have to admit that Modesitt hasn’t made things easy for his readers. The use of three very similar sets of protagonists, placed in the same location and trying to solve the same problem, albeit at different epochs, is almost guaranteed to cause some confusion. This is definitely not a book you can breeze through whilst relaxing in the bath. If you want to understand what’s going on, you will need to concentrate from beginning to end. So if you are looking for casual entertainment, this is probably not the book for you.

Weighing the good against the bad, I’m convinced that the good comes out on top. This is an interesting story which puts sympathetic characters into difficult situations and lets them get on with it. Modesitt has written a complex tale which rewards the reader’s concentration and explores contemporary issues in a thoughtful but entertaining way. I very much enjoyed reading it.

Patrick Mahon

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