EMPEROR

by Stephen Baxter

Ace

978-0-441-01466-8

302pp/$24.95/January 2007

Emperor
Cover by Chris Shamwana

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Stephen Baxter’s Emperor is a multi-generational saga that spans four centuries, from the birth of Jesus to the execution of Pelagius, the first major heretic in the Christian Roman Empire.  The focus of the novel, which is the first book of the Time’s Tapestry series, is the family of Nectovelin and his niece Agrippina throughout the period.

Upon Nectovelin’s birth in the hinterlands of Britain, a prophecy was spoken in Latin, a language the speaker did not know.  It was written down and Nectovelin wore it as a talisman, fully believing in the truth and efficacy of the prophecy he had been told but could never read.  When Claudius invades England, Nectovelin and Agrippina work together to ensure that the prophecy comes true as they seek vengeance for the soldier’s casual murder of Agrippina’s brother, Mandubracius, in the first wave of the attack. However, part of Baxter’s point is that prophecies are tricky things.  Although eventually nearly everything mentioned in the prophecy happens, none of it can be tied to specific events until they are about to happen, or have already happened.

Nearly a century after the initial invasion, Agrippina’s descendent, Claudia Severa, a native of Rome, reappears in Britain and contacts Brigonius, the descendent of Agrippina’s one-time lover.  Claudia has the prophect and believes she can use it to make her fortune, and Brigonius’s.  The two work from Claudia’s understanding of the prophecy to make sure Hadrian’s forces build a stone wall across Britain, even when they don’t understand all of the prophecy or what it applies to. 

Finally, Several generations later, Brigonius’s descendents are trying to recover the prophecy, long rumored to apply to their family, but also long lost.  Thallius hopes that the prophecy offers hope that the vision of Christianity that he embraces, of a peaceful religion, will be supported by the prophecy. He feels an urgency to find the prophecy, for which he must find a descendent of Claudia’s, because he sees Constantine, the Emperor who legalized Christianity and helped its spread, as one who espouses a more militant version of the religion.

Baxter’s story can either be read as one of numerous improbable coincidences or of one in which some higher power is controlling the pieces.  Partly through the accuracy (in hindsight) of the prophecy, Baxter hints the latter is true.  Through the end of Emperor, Baxter’s world appears to follow the real world’s history closely, although there are also indications that the prophecy will eventually lead to a world that is different from our own.

Although Nectovelin’s prophecy links the three segments of the story, each is practically a short story that stands on its own, just as Emperor is part of a series that can stand on its own. Read individually, each story is complete, although when read with the linking theme, they form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Emperor can also be read on its own, but it would appear that when all four volumes of Time’s Tapestry have been published, the series will also form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

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