Every once in a while it’s fun to take a risk while out book shopping, particularly while at used bookstores where the stakes are low and the possible reward is great. Recently I decided to take such a risk, when the cover for Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. caught my eye and the plot intrigued me. Unfortunately this was to be one of the times the gamble did not pay off, as the story proved a bit too confusingly written and drawn out to really make a true impact with its intriguing premise.
The plot of Empress revolves around a giant canal that travels along the center of Earth, a massive and mysterious structure whose true purpose is unknown to humanity. Three different cultures separated by hundreds of thousands of years each strive to discover the forces behind this structure, and this plot element is both the author’s greatest strength and weakness. Modesitt creates three vastly unique and fascinating societies (one a hyper-politicized culture, one a super-technological hive-like society, and finally a curious mixture of Nordic heritage and hyper-feminism) and jumps between the respective viewpoints with each chapter. The cultures are so exotic and the characters so abundant, however, that it proves rather hard for the reader to adjust to the sudden shifts, and subsequently can be confusing. Personally, I did not gain a true grip on the main characters and the overall plot until roughly 150 pages in. Most of this setup, sadly, proves somewhat inconsequential when the book reaches its climax and the true nature of the canal is revealed, so that the reader feels a bit cheated at the laborious time spent slogging through the first half.
There are some neat musings on the nature of time and human meaning, survivability versus morality, and the inalterable cycles of the natural order to be had along the way (according to Modesitt’s world, climate change is inexorable, regardless of what humanity strives to do one way or the other) but the overall experience is lacking. Toward the end of the book, one of the main characters postulates that “the evolution toward meaning will continue” in our universe, for true meaning in life has not yet been attained and has many opponents. This chief philosophical pillar of the story ironically sums up my own opinions on the tale Modesitt has spun: a fascinating story is here somewhere, but somehow it got derailed along the way.