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Empress of Eternity, LE Modesitt, Jr

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Empress of Eternity, LE Modesitt, Jr
(2010 Tor, $25.99, 352pp)

LE Modesitt, Jr is a bulwark of genre fiction in the US. He stands, legs apart, one hand against the wall of fantasy, the other hand pressed against science fiction. Like the man, his novels, which are often the size of small buildings, straddle both genres. It’s an appropriate conceit, since Modesitt’s latest, Empress of Eternity, has an architectural feature at its core. The Canal straddles an unnamed continent on a world the blurb calls “Earth” but the story itself does not. This Canal is made of some indestructible material. No one knows what it’s for, who built it, or why. Three narratives describe the events surrounding three groups of people from three different eras, each of which is researching the mysterious Canal. According to the blurb, these narratives are set hundreds of thousands of years apart, but there is no indication of this in the text as each uses a different calendar.

Lord Maertyn is a scientist and minor ministerial functionary in the Unity of Caelaarn. He and his wife Maarlyna, who is recovering from a near-fatal illness, are researching the Canal. But there is a power struggle occurring back in the capital, and Maertyn becomes embroiled in it when his minister asks him to fill in for an absent assistant minister. Faelyna and Eltyn are also researching the Canal, but they are doing so for the Ruche. However, a coup among the rulers of the Ruche – the Fifty becomes the Twenty – is followed by a brutal campaign of brainwashing. Faelyna and Eltyn resist. Duhlye and Helkyria are researching the Canal for the Vaniran Hegemony. But the Vanir are under attack by the Aesyr, also of the Hegemony, but racially different and possessing their own armed forces. The Aesyr have a weapon, the Hammer, which they threaten to use unless the Vanirans reveal what secrets they have discovered in their research on the Canal.

These three stories seem to follow the same plot, before they abruptly, and solely due to authorial handwaving, become linked. Maarlyna transforms into the title character; the Aesyr provide a direct threat to the universe of the book… But the Ruche narrative is entirely superfluous. It neither impacts the resolution, nor assists in explaining it. In fact, very little of any of the three worlds is explained – the reader, for example, has to guess the relationship between the Vanir and Aesyr. It makes for a frustrating read. Further, characters lecture each other on assorted subjects, none of which sound remotely plausible. The description of the Hammer’s workings are the worst kind of technobabble; as indeed are the workings of the Canal. Which is, in fact, a “bridge” through time and apparently “anchored” at “discrete event-points”. Modesitt’s explanation badly confuses a philosophy of time with physics. He also presents events or situations to illustrate points… only to have a character then explain what has just been illustrated. The prose, too, is peculiar, and padded out with stylistic ticks which render sentences clumsy: “he smoothed his hair, short as it was”, “he carried but a bag”… That “as it was” is appended unnecessarily to sentences throughout the story; that inserted “but” appears on almost every page. Not to mention the Ruche characters’ “bio-orbs” and “calcjections”…

Empress of Eternity is a novel light on sense. This may well be because somewhere within its 352 pages a short story has been forcibly fed a pottage of words in an effort to bulk it up to novel-length. This is a novel remarkable for the number of scenes which neither advance the plot nor explain the world. The end result is some sort of van Vogtian tosh put in service of a plot which has neither beginning nor middle, but crashes to an unsatisfactory end. Van Vogt’s 800-word cliff-hangers, however, made his novels pacey reads. The same cannot be said of Empress of Eternity.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #231 November-December 2010.

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