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End of the Century by Chris Roberson


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End of the Century by Chris Roberson
Pyr, 2009, 485pp

A sixth-century peasant, drawn to the court of King Artor at Caer Llundain, known to the Romans as Londinium. A nineteenth-century consulting detective investigating a series of grisly murders on the eve of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. An American teenager of the year 2000, called to London by what may be visions or simply epilepsy-induced hallucinations. Three tales of adventure — a modern-day jewel heist, a gaslit mystery, and an Arthurian fantasy — connected by the greatest treasure of all, the Holy Grail.

I’ve been on a Chris Roberson kick lately, having read four of his novels in the past year. But with his most recent offering, End of the Century, I’ve moved from being a Roberson reader to a Roberson fan. End of the Century is an ambitious novel, telling three stories in parallel until the walls of time begin to break down to reveal the interconnections between the stories. Interconnections that meet at a nexus beyond time and space.

The three stories that form the warp of the novel are interesting in themselves. The youth Galaad’s visions of a lady clad in white trapped in a glass tower compel him to seek out Artor, the high king of Britain. Through the young man’s eyes we see this very realistic King Arthur, not the medieval knight in shining armor but a war dux of late antiquity, trying to hold together a fragile stalemate with the Saxon invaders of his homeland. To a king tired of such Realpolitik, Galaad’s vision comes like a breath of fresh air. One last chance at adventure before the day-to-day mechanics of government grind him away. And then Artor and his band of champions meet the Huntsman and enter the strange Summerlands.

In the nineteenth century, Sandford Blank and his friend Roxanne Bonaventure are called in to investigate a series of murders where the head and limbs of the prostitute victims have been sheered off. Not sawed or hacked, but cut clean through. The case bears an eerie similarity to the great unsolved case of Blank’s life, that of the so-called Torso Murders. Both the new murders and Sanford Blank prove to be more than what they seem.

At the end of the twentieth century, teenaged Alive Fell has run away from her home in Texas to London, drawn by visions she has been seeing since her first seizure of temporal lobe epilepsy at age seven. Her visions seem to have betrayed her, until she is rescued from the Huntsman (the same Huntsman who harried Artor, Galaad, and their companions) by a man she has seen in them from the first, Stillman Waters, retired spy and occultist.

Readers of these pages may enjoy not only the ripping adventures, but also the time-twisting way that Roberson has the stories intersect. The three narrative lines definitely come together, in a way the lines of Three Unbroken never did. Roberson’s take on the Grail Hollows is unique, and while there are a few small details of the novel that are not to my taste, the ending of the novel is quite satisfying. According to Roberson’s notes at the end of novel, he has been working on the story, off and on, for almost twenty years.

The workmanship shows.

Reading End of the Century may be enhanced by reading other novels in the author’s oeuvre, especially his Bonaventure-Carmody cycle: Cybermancy Incorporated; Here, There & Everywhere; Paragaea: A Planetary Romance; and Set the Seas on Fire. The concept behind this cycle owes much to the von Bek/Beck/Begg stories of Michael Moorcock, the Diogenes Club stories of Kim Newman, the graphic novels of Alan Moore (End of the Century is dedicated to these three authors), and especially the Wold Newton stories of Philip José Farmer. Reading Roberson’s other works isn’t strictly necessary, but it makes End of the Century even more fun.

I was a little disappointed to see a handful of typos in the Pyr edition of the novel, including a use of “marital” when “martial” is clearly meant. This is the first Pyr book where I’ve noticed such a slip — which is to Pyr’s credit in the current high-speed world of publishing. The typos in no way detract from the story, and hopefully will be corrected in future printings. Pyr is to be commended for consistently bringing out such quality works of speculative fiction as End of the Century.

Readers interested in Arthurian lore, swashbuckling adventure stories and genre-twisting travels through time and space should really enjoy Chris Roberson’s End of the Century.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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