EMPIRE OF UNREASON
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Empire of Unreason is the third and final novel in J. Gregory Keyes’s “Age of Unreason” trilogy. The basic idea of the trilogy is that both science and the occult existed until Isaac Newton abandoned the study of physics to formulate the laws regulating alchemy, astrology and the occult. Once that happened, science atrophied while the supernatural became the dominant force in the world.
The first two novels in the series followed Benjamin Franklin and Adrienne de Mornay de Montchevreuil on their sometimes complementary, but usually divergent quests for knowledge. Their pursuits have been played out against a background of a Europe at war, initially between France and England and then between Russia and the Hapsburg Empire. When Empire of Unreason begins, the events of A Calculus of Angels are ten years in the past, European civilization has further declined and an ice age and settled over much of North America.
Franklin and Adrienne continue to pursue their studies and battle the forces of evil and Keyes has finally begun to explain the motivations for the increasing appearance of the malikim, the angels who are supporting and possibly initiating the hardships and wars which are plaguing the world. This information has the effect of blunting the scientific process which Keyes has been demonstrating throughout the previous novels and weakening the story as Franklin and his allies fight an increasingly desperate battle against the forces of evil. Even as Keyes heightens the tension, he removes some of the human quality which infused the earlier works in the series.
While the other novels were set mostly in the European arenas of London, Paris and Prague, the majority of the action in Empire of Unreason takes place in a splintered America which has learned to be independent of the English following England’s destruction at the end of Newton’s Cannon. Scenes alternate between Franklin, living in the shadow of Charles Town, South Carolina and Red Shoes, the Indian from A Calculus of Angels, on an epic quest in the untamed west. In addition, Keyes includes scenes in Russia featuring Adrienne. As he did in previous books, nearly all chapters end with a cliff-hanger.
Nevertheless, Empire of Unreason continues the story which Keyes began in Newton’s Cannon and builds to a conclusion which explains the way his universe functions and why events happened the way they did. Most of Keyes’s characters are intelligent and interesting, both those drawn from historical sources such as Franklin and Voltaire, and those which are the invention of the author, such as Adrienne and Red Shoes. Although the historical circumstances have changes and the Benjamin Franklin in Keyes’s work is clearly not the same man as in our own history, traces of Franklin’s genius and philosophy can still be seen, tempered by the different world in which he lives.
Events in earlier books which seemed minor have a way of making their effects known in Empire of Unreason. Characters who Keyes seems to have dismissed in earlier volumes make re-appearances in new roles, proving to be the lynchpin of the situation. Although each of the three books can be read on its own, therefore, taken together the books form a whole which is greater than its individual components.
While Empire of Unreason is the weakest and slowest moving of the three novels, it answers the questions which were raised, but not answered in the two previous books. Empire of Unreason is still an enjoyable and thought provoking work and further indicates that J. Gregory Keyes is an author to keep an eye on as his career progresses.
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