Fiction Reviews

Emperor: Time's Tapestry Book One

(2006) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, 6.99, pbk, 302pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7922-9


It is 4 BC and it's a bit nippy in old Blighty, which at the time is called 'Britannia'. A woman is giving birth and, amidst all the shouting and pain, she starts speaking a strange tongue. One of those present recognises this as Latin. Fortunately someone writes what she says down as she gives birth to her son Nectovelin. The words relate to Roman Emperors, time's tapestry, and a successful Roman invasion of Britannia. As this last has not happened yet, the words are taken as a prophecy. Indeed, as the book progresses, these events portrayed do come to pass but, as often as not, after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The book is divided into three parts, each roughly a century apart, which follow the fortunes of the family as Roman affairs ebb and flow around them. Later in the book another boy is born and the letters of (a different) prophecy are tattooed on his back. Towards the book's end there is some discussion of a 'weaver' of time's tapestry but this is only talk: nobody knows who the weaver is. There is also a brief speculation that Christians from the future are manipulating the past. It has to be said that this short discussion does not sit easily within the book as the historical background has been reasonably well researched and it is historically established that prophecies were two a penny in those days but there is no (as far as I know) discussion that these might be backward attempts to change the past so as to alter the future. (I know this having seen Up Pompeii.)

Leaving this last aside, the book reads almost as an historical novel and as such has a feel of fantasy about it. The giveaway that it is not is at the book's beginning where the Nectovelin prophecy is given in full. This prophecy could be any of the time were it not for the lines: 'I say to you that all men are born equal, free, rights inalienable assured by the maker's attribute endowed with Life and Liberty and Happiness pursuit'.

Stephen Baxter does tend to take the cosmological perspective and in the past his novels have dealt with parallel timelines / alternate continua not to mention cosmological evolution and deep time themes. This and the 'Time's Tapestry' sub-title is a pretty unsubtle signal that the book is not some historically-based fantasy but hard SF, though how much the series has to do with a broader cosmological perspective (if at all) remains to be seen. At this stage the motives of these time agents are not clear, other than they are mucking around with the timeline if only through transferring information from the future, but that will no doubt change with the books to follow in the series.

Those into historical fantasy, or those into historical fantasy as well as SF, are very likely to enjoy this latest Baxter offering. Those whose reading diet is more puritanical, being confined to hard SF within the speculative fiction cannon, may well find that there is little to keep them going. Having said that, the promise of what is to come is clearly there. Baxter fans will certainly enjoy this latest novel. As to how this series of books will pan out? Only time will tell.

Jonathan Cowie

The sequels to Emperor are: Conqueror, Navigator and Weaver.

Several other Stephen Baxter titles are reviewed on this site: see the master fiction review index under 'B'.

Want to see what is about to be published in the coming season? See the SF or Fantasy 'forthcoming books' sections off of the master Science Fiction news index page.

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