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Emperor: Times Tapestry, Book One review

Epic historical fiction laced with a science fiction premise.

378 PAGES · £17.99

Author:
Stephen Baxter

Publisher:
Gollancz

ISBN:
0-575-07432-9

Rating: 4/5

It is the most incongruous image: Professorial Stephen Baxter, mild-mannered hard SF luminary, taking part in historical re-enactments. Yet that’s precisely what the press release tells us Baxter did as he researched Emperor.

Mind-boggling images of Baxter running fierce in the midst of the charge float before the eyes... and then the world gradually falls back into order. On further reflection, how could Baxter, that most intensely conscientious of authors, not get involved in fake blood-drenched research when writing what’s at root a historical conspiracy thriller set in Roman times? Hell, he probably led the charge…
that Emperor is entirely a historical novel. Its starting point is a prophecy uttered by a young woman called Brica, garbled words uttered in Latin – a language she’s never spoken before, during a long, painful childbirth. It’s a prophecy that hints at future events, such as the American Declaration of Independence: “I say to you that all men are created equal, free/Rights inalienable assuréd by the Maker’s attribute.”

The prophecy, as Baxter tells SFX in an interview to be published in a forthcoming issue, comes from the future, and more will be explained as the Time’s Tapestry sequence develops. For now, though, you’ll have to trust us when we say that this is a historical epic with a science fiction premise.

As such, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Coalescent, the first novel of Baxter’s recent Destiny’s Children books. However, where the late Roman-cum-Arthurian Britain portrayed in Coalescent is allied both to a contemporary story and a far-future narrative, Baxter is content to stay firmly in the past with Emperor . Indeed, he seems positively to revel in the chance not to write about spaceships or the weirder branches of quantum physics.

But, of course, Baxter is far too much the pedagogue simply to abandon the chance to write about interestingly academic stuff. Rather, he brings little-remembered events in British-Roman history to life. In doing so, he shows us not a Britain crudely subjugated by the Romans, but a rich, vibrant land that was important in its own right, a place where world-shaping events took place. Had these events gone differently, Baxter is saying, history might have been entirely different.

This isn’t fanciful jingoism by the way. Constantine the Great, for instance, was proclaimed Roman Emperor in Britain at York in 306AD, while in 383AD Magnus Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by the island’s Roman garrison, and went on to conquer Gaul, Spain and Italy.

Allying momentous events to a family saga that extends from 4BC to 418AD, shortly after Roman rule formally ended in Britain, Baxter offers us revolting Britons, the building of Hadrian’s Wall, an assassination attempt against Constantine and more. He also gives us a gallery of memorable characters, both rogues and good souls: vengeful Agrippina, who witnesses infanticide as the Romans invade; vicious Severa, who sees a business opportunity in keeping the northern tribes at bay; and urbane Thalius, a man set on rescuing an obscure slave boy who happens to be his distant cousin.

Taken together, it’s a vividly convincing picture of a past world, while the prophecy link between the main players gives the narrative a forward momentum remarkable in a book that spans four centuries.

Criticisms? Not one you might expect. While science guy Baxter’s earliest books were all about the ideas, this is a character-based novel that leaves you wanting to spend more time with its major players than the book’s structure allows. The time on the battle re-enactment fields was definitely not wasted.

Jonathan Wright

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