Review of Chris Roberson - The End of the Century
Strand One - Galaad, a young man from Wales, has been having visions of a woman in white trapped in a glass tower on a remote island. He journeys to Caer Llundain (London) to tell of his visions to Artor (Arthur to you and me). Artor believes his visions to be true and organises a quest to rescue the woman in white.
Strand Two - Sandford Blank is a Victorian Private Investigator with a mysterious shady past. (Yes he does sound a little like Sherlock Holmes.) Together with his associate Miss Roxanne Bonaventure he is called in to investigate a series of murders in London threatening to disrupt the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria.
Strand Three - Alive Fell is a teenage American who suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy. She's run away to London, following clues given to her in hallucinations during epileptic attacks. Once there she encounters a former spy from a secret British Intelligence organisation MI8 - tasked with pursuing supernatural foes. She also discovers that there could be some truth to the hallucinations that compelled her to come to England.
The most impressive part of this segmented novel is that the three parts are equal. No single part rises above the others. Usually when reading this kind of book one segment is noticeably more enjoyable than the others. As it's human nature is to want the good bits there is a natural tendency to rush (or skip) the others. No such worries here - this book is remarkably well balanced.
Roberson has also managed to write each strand in a slightly different voice, making slight changes to the language to suit the period. But it's not done to excess. Blank and Bonaventure's diction is the wonderfully self-restricted, clipped prose of Victoriana. The Arthurian tale is told in a restrained heroic tone - everything measured against masculine bravado; and the modern tale is more edgy, more a case of fighting a system as well as a definite enemy.
But the book has one or two flaws. Firstly right from the very first page there is an all too obvious inevitability that the three story strands will join together. This knowledge does hamper the pleasure of reading. You find yourself waiting for those links to arrive, and doing so does distract. But this is minor, and some might find it pleasurable to spot these links.
But the main problem is the switching between the threads. It's jerky - especially as each section appears in the same exact order - Arthurian into Victorian into modern day before beginning the loop again.
When you do return to each in turn you pick the tale up exactly where you left it. If these are linked tales there should be more of a feeling of progress across the strands despite their differing time periods. It’s slow, hard going.
I've read longer books. I've read books that took longer to get to the action. But these gave more. If I've moved forward so little plot-wise after two hundred pages, I want to have enjoyed some wonderful, deep character and world building. Here you get little of that, because in reality you are only seventy pages into each tale.
It's a shame, for Roberson has created fine characters. And his plot, once you get to it, is not bad. It has intrigue, adventure, touches of the supernatural and magickal, a little humour and a definite David versus Goliath vibe.
So, I have advice for anyone thinking of reading this book. Do! But I would recommend your reading the first twenty-eight chapters of this book as three separate linear tales. That is start from the beginning and read every chapter headed "Twilight" (Arthurian) until you run out of book. Start again and read all the "Jubilee" (Holmesian) chapters (except chapter thirty), and then the "Millennium" (present day) chapters.
When you have done this then begin reading what should have been the fourth separate linked short story of the book at chapter twenty-nine and read to the end. I have a feeling it will be a lot more satisfying that way. A pity it's not how it was presented.