L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s EMPRESS OF ETERNITY is a very smart and engaging novel with an unusual set-up. Modesitt, Jr., uses three radically different far-future time periods, all set on our Earth, to illustrate some interesting theories on the nature of time, space, the human mind, the human spirit, and much, much more, along the way delineating a sweet husband-and-wife romance which as much as anything defines the heart of this book.
Before I go further, I should mention that EMPRESS OF ETERNITY is a follow-up to THE ETERNITY ARTIFACT, but can be read alone. (Good thing, too, as I didn’t read the previous book.) And the only thing that you need to know about the previous book that’s essential to follow this plot is that the Moon has been blown to bits and is now a ring of some sort through a process that’s gradually explained, bit by bit, through the narrative. I picked this up as I went, but knowing this going in would’ve been a help (which, of course, is why I’m telling you this right now to save steps).
The three time periods, all far in our future and set on the North American continent, are that of the Unity of Caelaarn, the Empire of the Ruche, and the time of the Vanir. These are sequential, meaning Caelaarn is the closest to our time period (even though they don’t really remember anything about us), and the Vanir are the furthest away; there also is some genetic drift going on and some fundamental changes to how humanity has evolved by the time of the Vanir (that the females are bigger than the males unless genetic modification is performed is one of those things; another is that the tips of head-hair and eyebrows, for the women, can show their emotions by a “mood ring” type of thing where the color depends on the person’s mood), though the people of the time of the Unity of Caelaarn are really no different from thee and me (though they use a lot of double “a’s” and a whole lot of “y’s” to differentiate their names, as if the Dutch had taken over the United States).
Note that all three time periods are grappling with a mysterious, canal-like artifact, and have sent teams of scientists to study it and report anything they can find out to the higher-ups in the various eras. I view the canal-like artifact as a MacGuffin, but it’s a necessary MacGuffin indeed.
The most human story of the lot is that of Caelaarn Minister and Lord Maertyn S’Eidolon and his wife, Maarlyna. Maertyn, years ago, risked everything to save his wife, up to and including illegal cloning, because he felt at that time he hadn’t shown his love for her enough — and love, by definition, risks all to gain all. Maertyn’s time is one of political strife, similar to that of our time or that of the Vanir’s struggle with the Aesyr later on; he and his wife have a complicated, yet sweet relationship that shows just how good companionship can be no matter what may come.
The second story deals with those of the Ruche, specifically with two scientists, Eltyn and Faelyna. (I told you that Modesitt, Jr., uses a lot of “y’s” in this narrative, possibly because of how vowels change over time, but maybe also for Jason’s stated rule of “don’t make names too hard to pronounce.” More on that later.) They communicate mostly by pulse — electronic speech which may as well be telepathy — and it took me quite some time (nearly a third of the book) before I figured out they really were human beings, just altered in some way to make this pulsing necessary. The reason I finally figured it out is because of a trucker, Rhyana, who is like any human being I know right now on this Earth, or like those from the Unity of Caelaarn — she speaks aloud, gets annoyed with Eltyn and Faelyna because they don’t speak aloud overmuch, and once she comes to stay with them (for reasons I’ll let you figure out) ends up doing all the cooking and “grunt work” so they can get on with their scientific duties.
The third story is that of the Vanir, who are fighting the Aesyr. These two names come nearly directly from Nordic mythology, and the allusion is intentional; the Aesyr are militant racists who have genetically engineered men to be larger than women again (oh, the horror!), while the Vanir are peace-loving, freedom-loving people in an isolationist phase. Helkyria, a scientist, and her mate, Kavn Duhyle (a man — sound out his name; it may as well be “Kevin Doyle”), are racing against time to prevent annihilation — not just of the Earth, but of everything, everywhere, in every time.
How do they all get saved? And what does the love story of Maertyn and Maarlyna mean to all three different time periods? Well, those are left up to the reader to find out . . . but I’ll say this: if you give this book time, you’ll get hooked.
Modesitt, Jr., did his homework here. His theory of time as event-points that our minds can’t help but infer as motion and as sequential is up-to-the-minute, and points to string theory and some other things having to do with universal mechanics and physics as a way to construct a humane and thrilling plot. It’s rare to get a book that’s based solidly on science that has so much else going for it — the humanity in all three different time periods is palpable — while the politics and observations that are endemic to all of Modesitt, Jr.’s work are there in full measure.
While I do not feel EMPRESS OF ETERNITY is Modesitt, Jr.’s best book — I’m partial to the four books about the Ecolitans (now comprised in two omnibuses, EMPIRE & ECOLITAN and ECOLITAN PRIME), I thought ARCHFORM: BEAUTY and ADIAMANTE excellent stand-alone novels and truly appreciated the FOREVER HERO omnibus, and of course Modesitt, Jr., came to prominence through his far lighter series of Recluce novels — it stands as one of Modesitt, Jr.’s better books.
If you need a grade, I’d give it an A-, mostly because some of the names were unnecessarily difficult to pronounce or even conceive of (as I said, Kavn Duhyle sounds like “Kevin Doyle” if you sound it out, but apparently Modesitt, Jr., did not believe we’d appreciate a future hero if he was named such, so we got the syllabic equivalent that “looked futuristic” instead, which to my mind comes perilously close to Jason’s stated axiom of “no unnecessarily complicated names”), and partly because it took me the first third of the book to figure out those from the Ruche really were human.
I enjoyed EMPRESS OF ETERNITY very much, and believe if you give it a chance, you will, too. This is an outstanding work of science fiction that deserves to be read by many — and I hope it will be.
— Reviewed by Barb