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Chris Roberson is one of the authors in the Clockwork Storybook group, along with Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges. Unlike them, he’s already published over a dozen fantasy or science fiction novels. We’re working together on a FABLES spinoff series starring Cinderella, and in San Diego I told him I’d like to read some of his books, and asked which I should start with. Chris suggested this one, and was kind enough to send me a copy.
“End of the Century” is metafiction, with both fantasy and science fiction elements, and I enjoyed reading it, though some things worked better for me than others. Most of the novel is divided into three storylines taking place in three different eras, though all centered in London, England.
In 498 AD we follow Galaad, to the court of King Artor where he reports on visions that have been troubling him involving a white lady trapped in a crystal tower in northern England who needs aid. Artor and his knights are bored with governing, and agree to go on a quest to try to find and rescue this maiden. As they approach the area where she may be, strange and menacing enemies oppose them, chiefly an apparently indestructible Huntsman with a sword that can cut through anything easily, and his equally deady Hounds. This storyline shares many elements with the legends we know of King Arthur, though with quite a few differences as well.
In 1897 we follow a consulting detective, Sanford Blank, and his female assistant Roxanne Bonaventure as they are called in by Scotland Yard on a series of slasher murders that have police baffled. The victims exhibit one strange feature: their heads and limbs are cut off with exacting clean strokes that pierce skin, muscle and bone with equal ease. As the investigation continues, Blank and Bonaventure are drawn into more Arthurian mythology, and are threatened by the same Huntsman and his Hounds, among many other dangers. This section is reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, of course, but with some features of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and perhaps the TV show “The Avengers” as well.
In 2000 we follow a troubled teen Goth girl who has arrived in London also trying to find meaning in a series of visions she’s been experiencing. Alice Fell has run away from her home in Texas, and soon finds trouble in London: the same hellish Hounds we’ve seen before. She is rescued by Stillman Waters, a former deep cover agent for Britain who has now “retired” to a secret lair under the city. Something about Alice causes him to take up with her, and the two of them begin investigating clues to the visions Alice has, once more getting caught up in Arthurian legends and ancient dangers. This section reminded me a bit of “Dr. Who” and his often young, female companions.
That’s only the beginning of the plot of this story, it goes much further and adds many more elements and characters that all relate to each other, but despite what the cover might suggest, the main characters don’t really interact directly until the very end. The other important element of the story is Time. It’s almost a character in itself, as we bounce back and forth between eras, and some characters seem to have unusual relationships with Time, too. There’s lots of action and intrigue, many mysteries (perhaps too many), and the metafictional approach means that all sorts of real people and fictional characters are drawn in to interact in one way or another.
I liked all the main characters, and even some of the lesser ones are entertaining. We get to know Alice the best, I think, learning much of her troubling back story, and she is probably the most sympathetic character, despite her gruff attitude. Galaad’s back story is also explored and we get into his thoughts, too. Blank and Bonaventure are kept more at a distance, though Blank’s very unusual master is a surprising revelation later in the book.
As a story, it holds together pretty well for about the first two thirds of the book, with occasional info-dumps here and there, but in the final third there is so much going on it gets hard to follow all the characters, plot threads and mysteries. And in the final climactic scenes, Alice is given the job of tying up lots of loose plot threads, which she does with an almost mechanical, emotionless attitude that, for me, caused a disconnect. Plot takes over, and the emotional side of the story and characters gets lost. Yes, it’s good to have all the plot threads connected and resolved, but the emotional content is left behind, and the characters become merely pieces on a chessboard. I think Time is partly to blame; it’s hard to get all the elements lined up in a story involving Time in such a large way and still have the characters play true to their emotional cores. It can be done, Robert Heinlein’s “The Door Into Summer” is a good example, but it’s tricky, and with so many plot threads in this book, the rush at the end leaves little room for true character resolution.
In the afterword I learned that some of these characters have appeared in other books by Roberson, and I’m intrigued enough to want to read more, so I’ll be trying his other books one of these days. Roberson is, above all, a very ambitious writer, and he writes the kind of stories I like, even if his reach exceeded his grasp a bit on this one, at least in my view.
If you like metafiction, give this one a try. There’s a lot to like in it. Recommended.