End of the Century: Roberson deftly juggles three stories

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSFF book reviews Chris Roberson, End of the CenturyEnd of the Century by Chris Roberson

In End of the Century, Chris Roberson takes us on an Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail. While that would be plenty for most writers, Roberson isn’t content to stop with only one story; he also tells the story of a search for a serial killer in London around the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and of Alice Fell, a sixteen-year-old following a vision that may simply be a symptom of epilepsy in 2000. The three stories have a number of factors that seem to be similar, particularly the big fellow who goes around attacking people with a sword that can slice through anything, accompanied by dogs with blood-red ears and teeth. Only in the last 75 pages or so do things start to come together in a startling way.

The book begins in 498 Anno Domini, when Galaad arrives in Caer Llundain, home of the Count of Britannia and victor of Badon, the High King Arthur. This is no Arthur of legend, but a man who led his countrymen in battles against the Saxons and now presides over his people as best he can, settling disputes and trying to make sure that the Saxons — who weren’t really defeated, precisely, but merely fended off for the time being — don’t take away the hard-won peace. He and his fellow knights are bored with the business of governing, but understand its necessity. Still, they are ripe for an adventure, and Galaad offers a great one: he has had visions of an island surrounded by water with a castle of glass in which a lady in white is kept prisoner.

Actually, we don’t learn all of this the first time Galaad appears in the narrative. He simply arrives in Caer Llundain and manages to get inside the city gates in the first chapter. A few pages later, we’re transported to 1897 AD (the nomenclature for the date changes each time a new date is introduced, to comport with the century’s practice), where Sanford Blank and Roxanne Bonaventure, scandalously enjoying each other’s company without the presence of a chaperone, come across a newspaper account of a stolen diamond. Before they can explore the issue much further, however, the Metropolitan Police arrive to escort Blank to the Tower Bridge, where his assistance is required, though the police will not tell him why.

After that short introduction to those two characters, we find ourselves in 2000 CE, where Alice Fell has just arrived in London after a flight from New York. She’s a smart kid; when asked by the customs agent upon her arrival if she has anything to declare, she briefly considers responding, “Nothing but my genius,” though she can’t quite remember whether it was Orson Welles or Oscar Wilde who said that first. Alice manages to gain admittance to the city, much as Galaad did in the first chapter — and back we go to Galaad’s time.

Roberson juggles all of his characters and their seeming disparate stories with great skill, slowly dealing out the similarities in the different time streams, slowly building the personalities of his various characters, slowly building a plot that is going to explode at the end of the book. It is quite enjoyable to skip among the centuries. I particularly enjoyed Roberson’s vision of fifth century London, and the realistic portrayal of the historical Arthur — assuming that there ever was a historical Arthur. The smell and feel of that time and place are brought so much to life that the reader starts to feel the cold and smell the dirty bodies. This portion of the book is so grounded in realism when the story begins that it is almost a disappointment when the story of Galaad, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table takes off into the realm of the unknown. Almost, but not quite.

Blank and Bonaventure are interesting characters, too, even if the ambiance of the nineteenth century isn’t quite as cleanly drawn. There is something obviously peculiar about both of them, and it doesn’t stop with Blank’s resemblance to Sherlock Holmes — or even his resemblance to Oscar Wilde, which becomes apparent only late in the book. They both seem to know much more than they should, and while Blank’s knowledge seems to derive mostly from an uncanny ability to use deductive reasoning, Bonaventure is an altogether different story. Unconcerned with conventional mores regarding the deportment of women, she goes where she pleases and does what she will. She seems more a woman of our time than of the nineteenth century, and there’s a reason for that.

Alice Fell has been having visions, just as Galaad does, though it doesn’t seem that the visions have a great deal in common. She knows she needs to be in London, and she soon meets Stillman Waters, who has been in her visions for years. Stillman is at least as odd as Blank and Bonaventure, and seems to have something in common with the nineteenth century couple that goes beyond history.

The threads progress pretty much equally, and each is as interesting as the other. But things take a serious turn for the weird when Galaad, Arthur and the Knights find themselves inside an odd mist with even odder weapons, facing very, very strange adversaries indeed. Le Morte d’Arthur seems very far away at this point. And Alice finds herself in the Unworld, falling, endlessly falling, but she seems to have a mission. Suddenly this book starts to completely unravel, or perhaps to take a different shape, or maybe to find the shape it was heading for all along.

It’s a flaw of End of the Century that the final 75 pages do not seem to grow organically from the three stories that lead up to it, but instead to be almost an entirely new story. I have my suspicions that this may be because I have not read any of Roberson’s earlier novels, in which some of the characters may have had their first appearances, according to the Author’s Note at the end of the book. I seem to have started at the wrong place. But this only makes me want to read more of Roberson’s work — particularly Here, There and Everywhere, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance and Set the Seas on Fire, all three of which promise to tell me more about Roxanne Bonaventure and her family. I’ll also be on the lookout for new writing from Chris Roberson. He kept me captivated for almost 500 pages with excellent characterization and world building, even if the plot did sometimes make me feel lost. I really want to learn more about his alternate — or perhaps merely secret — history.

End of the Century — (2008) Publisher: Three people. Three eras. One city. Endless possibilities. End of the Century is a novel of the distant past, the unimaginable future, and the search for the Holy Grail. Set in the city of London, the narrative is interlaced between three ages, in which a disparate group of heroes, criminals, runaways, and lunatics are drawn into the greatest quest of all time.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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