I picked up these two books some time ago when I was working on a draft of my novel Lindisfarne , because someone told me there were scenes in the second book, Conqueror, set in the monastery on Lindisfarne in about the time period I was interested in. I figured I’d better read the first of this four-book series before starting the second, just to get a sense of context, and then decide whether I liked it enough to read the rest of the series.
With many other books on my to-read list, it took until this New Year before I finally picked up Emperor and started reading it. I wasn’t familiar with Baxter before, but apparently he’s quite well-known as a science fiction writer. Here he’s trying something different. The series is sometimes billed as “alternate history,” but in the first two books at least, it’s pretty much straight historical fiction. The only speculative element is more fantasy than sci-fi — events in Britain, beginning at the time of the Roman conquest, are being subtly influenced by a series of mysterious prophecies that may have been sent back through time.
Apart from this one fantasy element, you can pretty much forget you’re reading anything other than historical fiction in these first two books. If anything, the books reminded me more of Edward Rutherford’s works like Sarum or The Princes of Ireland, in that each section of the book follows a small group of characters through a period of months or years, then leaves that storyline and moves to the next section to focus on another small group several hundred years later. As with Rutherford, the characters tend to be descended from or somehow connected to characters in earlier parts of the story; unlike Rutherford, the linking element is not a specific geographical location — the storylines in these books range all over Britain, and I’m told that later books in the series move to other parts of Europe. Rather, what ties the storylines together are the prophecies — there’s always someone in each time period searching for fragments of a prophecy that’s been passed down through their family line, trying to interpret the prophecy or trying to manipulate events to make it come true.
Baxter’s writing is not as layered and lovingly detailed as Rutherford’s, but he does do a good job of creating a believable historical world each time. Characterization is a bit shallow and surface-level, and the fact that we jump from one time period to the next leaves the reader unable to get deeply engaged with any of the characters, but it’s still an enjoyable and informative read.
Apparently the “alternate history” elements become stronger in the third book of the series, and in the fourth and final book the reader finds out exactly whom in the twentieth century is trying to manipulate history by sending these prophecies back into the past. But while the first two books of the series did a good job of illuminating history and raised some intriguing possibilities, ultimately I wasn’t caught up enough to want to read on through two more books — at least, not right now.