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Emperor by Stephen Baxter
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Emperor (edition 2006)

by Stephen Baxter

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3181134,897 (3.3)17
Member:AlanPoulter
Title:Emperor
Authors:Stephen Baxter
Info:London : Gollancz, 2006.
Collections:Your library
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Tags:science fiction

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Emperor by Stephen Baxter

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You know that whole "don't judge a book by its cover" thing? Yeah, well, I totally did. In a heady bit of book buying when I graduated from college and got a full time job, I may have celebrated by overindulging in a Books-a-Million and grabbing anything that struck my fancy. I may or may not have read the book blurbs. After all, I was young, financially independent, had a whole life ahead of me to read--who cared how many books I wantonly threw into my book basket? Life was a library, baby, and I was going to spend it all in the stacks.

Tragic mistakes were made that I'm still paying for 7 years later.

For example, Emperor, a book that I feel must shoulder some of the blame for underwhelming me because of its blatantly misleading cover. There's a statue of Julius Caesar on the front pictured over what is clearly Rome. You might think that this is what the book is about. As did I. We're both mistaken because the book takes place in Britain and focuses on the rule of Claudius, Hadrian, and Constantine. It's the literary equivalent of being roofied and waking up next to an ugly book.

Emperor revolves around a prophecy passed down from one family's generation to another in Britain around the time of Roman rule. Unable to understand the enigmatic message in its entirety, each generation uses it to its own ends: during the reign of Claudius, it is mistakenly believed to vouchsafe Britain against conquest by Rome; during the reign of Hadrian, it is used to gain the family profit by manipulating the emperor into building an ill-advised stone wall to protect his empire in Britain; and during the time of Constantine, it is used to make an assassination attempt on the emperor's life.

Consisting of three interlocking narratives that necessarily skip forward in time with only loose connections to the previous tale, the reader never really gets to know any of the characters--which is a shame because many of them could be fascinating if given more depth. Baxter writes with authority about the time periods involved, but the novel is billed as an alternative science fiction history. Without a historian's understanding of the time period, it is difficult to ascertain which parts are alternative and which are authentic. And the science fiction bit is definitely AWOL. There's some very brief philosophical debate about the nature of time (is it linear, or do the past, present, and future coexist at the exact same time?) and about whether or not the prophecy was sent by someone in the future (known only as the Weaver) attempting to change the past, but nothing that I would classify as "science fiction."

The novel would have been far more successful for me if it had been a straight historical fiction (really the alternative part is virtually nonexistent and seems to stem entirely from the prophecy, which never really changes events) and focused on one of the three narratives presented. Baxter has the ability to bring the past to life in a real and satisfying way, but the lack of payoff in terms of the novel's presentation and in its use of the prophecy as an unnecessary device to explore the past make it a tedious read. While I will not read the other books in the series, I would not entirely rule out reading another Baxter novel.

So, the moral of the story is: the next time a cute little book starts making eyes at me from the shelf, I'm damn sure going to take the time to read the blurb before I take it home with me.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder ( )
  snat | Feb 4, 2014 |
Again, Baxter flags up a suppressed desire to write historical fiction, though as a loyal SF writer he can't resist throwing a spanner into the works. This book would be a family saga, with three generations of the same family experiencing the visitations of three Roman emperors - Claudius, Hadrian and Constantine - to Britain. But the linking factor to each stage of this family drama is a prophecy. All well and good, the Romans were quite fond of prophecies, but this one has a twist - three quarters of the way through, it suddenly lapses into the American Declaration of Independence....

The reaction of the characters to this is interesting; they seize on the bits of the prophesy with alacrity, seeking out meaning and divinations. But the lines about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" nonplusses them for the most part.

(This is a bit of a double-edged sword. The science fiction fans amongst the readers immediately pricked up their ears, and then read the rest of the book waiting for some hint as to the reason for this anomalous text. But to judge by some of the reviews from first-time readers, this threw them off-balance and - because it is the aim of Baxter to work this plot out over four novels - it seemed totally superfluous.)

What then follows is a fairly straight historical novel, though by taking three separate chunks of Romano-British history, Baxter achieves a sense of the span of the history of Roman Britain rather than focusing on any one family story in detail. But that's not his intention; it is that span of history that he's interested in. I was particularly taken with the recurring image of certain buildings, such as the arched gateway to Camulodunum (Colchester), the fort at Rutupiae (Richborough) or the mile-forts on the Roman Wall, and how they are changed over the centuries, reflecting the vibrancy and state of Romano-British society in that segment of the book; that imagery I found most telling.

At the climax of the third part, the attempted assassination of the Emperor Constantine, sf fans will recognise a potential historical change as one of the characters experiences a vision of different outcomes of the unfolding events. This is a little reminiscent of the Brian Aldiss short story, 'The Day of the Doomed King', which is essentially about an alternate history that fails to be created as events follow their historical path rather than launch down new and untrodden timelines. (Apparently, some editions of this book in some markets are subtitled 'An alternate history epic', which is a bit naughty of the publishers for setting up some readers' expectations.)

At the end of the book, another prophecy is made in a manner that suggests some sort of cyclical chain of events.

The book is a pretty quick read; chapters are short and the overall length is of the sort that we would have expected some thirty years ago.

In short, then; if you aren't seized by the mystery of the initial premise, this book might seem to be too slight, with too much historical scene-painting and not enough family drama. If you are intrigued by the premise, though, you'll probably want to read on but will have to put up with not getting answers just yet. ( )
  RobertDay | Jan 9, 2014 |
Genre: Science Fiction/Alternative History
Setting: Roman Britain
No. of pages:
Part of a series: Yes, 1st book in Time's Tapestry Quartet.
Next book: Conqueror

A woman going through a difficult birth starts uttering words in latin, a language she doesn't know. It is a prophecy, a prophecy that will echo down the centuries...

This book is set mostly in Roman Britain, from before the Romans came to Britain to the fall of Rome. The book is made up of several different sections, each focusing on a different generation from the same family line, spanning several hundred years. It is the story of a family and their prophecy, and how that links in with the fate of Rome and Britain. The early beginnings of Christianity is also one of the themes in the book. I particularly like the part where a stone mason convinces Emperoer Hadrian to build his great wall out of stone, and not mounds of turf. Enlightened sel interest I think!

The book is well written, and as well as being a good story gives an interesting insight into Roman Britain. It's supposed to be part of an alternative history series, but as far as I can tell so far it sticks fairly closely to accepted Roman history, so I learned a lot about the changing fortunes of the Roman Empire and of Britain over several centuries.

If I was to level a criticism at the book, it would be that the different sections of the book, each separated by many decades at least and featuring different characters, struggle to form a strong overall narrative. Each section is good on it's own but the link is sometimes a tenuous one between each set of characters. ( )
  nakmeister | Mar 18, 2009 |
Baxter likes the "literature of ideas" so much, he has one of his characters defend it from the criticism of poor characterisation. Time's Tapestry is nothing if not "literature of ideas". There are two problems with it.

The first is that, certainly throughout this first book, it is not immediately obvious what those ideas are. This is a narrative on a grand scale, covering about 400 years of history. We get a sense that somebody is trying to meddle with that history, but how or to what purpose remains unknown.

The second problem is that on the lower level of the narrative, in each individual period covered, with each set of characters, Baxter really doesn't do a very good job of characterisation. I found it difficult to form a bond with any of the characters. I found some of their actions and thought processes not particularly credible. Overall I just wished they'd hurry up and do stuff so I could get more of an idea of the bigger picture - and that didn't really happen.

Charles Stross remarked recently on one of his blogs (I forget which) that if you're writing a series of novel length works, each installment needs to have the structure of a novel, with a build-up and climax, and the overall series as a whole needs to have the structure of a novel - except the climax of the series needs to be sufficiently... well, climactic, to warrant the reader's investment of time to read all the books in the series. I can't yet comment on the entire Time's Tapestry series, but for me Emperor lacked a climax as a stand alone novel. I'm not even entirely sure it was enough of a build-up to make me want to read the rest of the series. I'll give it a go, but right now I'm seriously tempted to skip books two and three and go straight to Weaver. ( )
1 vote elmyra | Jun 25, 2008 |
Stephen Baxter’s “Emperor” book one in his Time’s Tapestry collection caught my eye due to its interesting plot thread and the author’s ubiquitous presence on the science fiction shelf. Although avuncular and warrior types abound the novel regrettably suffers from a plodding plot and less than robust characters. What I found especially difficult to believe were that Mr. Baxter’s main characters were living in the time he describes, they felt out of place and somewhat inchoate within their own periods. On the other hand, there were points where the story picked up steam especially when Audax entered the weave and brought a bit of realism and drama to the story. However, even though I gave it three stars, I don’t think I’ll be plucking the next thread in time’s tapestry. ( )
  BruderBane | Jun 14, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0441014666, Hardcover)

Inscribed in Latin, The Prophecy has resided in the hands of a single family for generations, revealing secrets about the world that is to come, and guiding them to wealth and power...

It begins when a Celtic noble betrays his people at the behest of his mother's belief in The Prophecy and sides with the conquering Roman legions. For the next 400 years, Britannia thrives-as does the family that contributed to Rome's reign over the island with the construction of Emperor Hadrian's Wall and the protection of Emperor Constantine from a coup d'Žtat.

And even when the sun begins to set on the Roman Empire, The Prophecy remains. For those capable of deciphering its signs and portents, the future of Earth is in their hands

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:29:30 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A first installment of a four-book alternate history epic traces the rise of a powerful family whose successes are linked to an ancient prophecy that guides their financial and political choices, in a tale that begins with a Celtic noble's betrayal and culminates in the fall of the Roman empire.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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