Pulling it All Together: A Review of Eternal Empire by Alec Nevala-Lee
Alec Nevala-Lee really knows how to keep the pages turning while wrestling with the structural needs of a sequel that has to wrap things up and accommodate the events of two earlier books and go off into interesting new territory of its own. This book is a lot of fun.
The opening chapters deal with the need to tell readers new to the series about previous events — the history of the characters is crucial here. Generally the revelation of the history is done deftly, though here and there pokes into the foreground, with structures that amount to: “So, if you’re so smart, tell me what you know about me!” as a means of introducing the requisite information. Now, I’ve read and enjoyed the previous two books, and I found these bits a little clunky, though I recognise the need for them.
This is a classic conundrum when writing a sequel that hinges on earlier events. Give the back story in a precis at the start (maybe in italics)? (I guess the risk here is that anyone who has not read the other books will not even start reading.) Work it into the text? Ignore the problem entirely and write as if everybody knows what’s going on? A series where the characters undergo little development can get away without context. A big book broken into three parts for publication can assume the readers are tackling them in sequence. This book falls between these extremes and this makes it challenging for the author.
Regardless, these problems fade away as the book progresses. Once it’s all established, the book races along, and it’s quite a ride. I enjoyed watching Ilya, Rachel and Maddy work their way through the story. I felt that Rachel Wolfe lacked a certain depth without Powell, her partner in earlier volumes, to bounce off, and the motivation of one of the key antagonists did not quite work for me, but on the other hand Ilya became an even more compelling figure and I was genuinely sorry as I read that I would not see him again. I think the omnibus edition has to be called The Scythian.
My favourite aspect of the book is detail stuff. The ingenious murder in the gaol, the gaol break, the little touches that fleshed out Maya Asthana’s character, references to the hazy histories of the steppes, the Scythians and the Khazars.
Which brings me to some kind of point. Some of Nevala-Lee’s best short fiction works so effectively because, though published in the science fiction magazine Analog, he has a knack of making the events all-too plausible, with the the plot turning on a point just the tiniest shift away from the world we know. As I read the references to the Khazars and Scythians and Ashkenazi — and Shambhala — I could not help but wonder whether there is a genuine Secret History story inside this author, waiting to get out. Tim Powers comes to mind.
Oh. And one character is called Tarkovsky. I am guessing Eisenstein would have been too obvious…