THE CENTURION'S EMPIRE
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The concept of the eternal hero is as old as folklore, including such heroes as Gilgamesh, King Arthur and Charlemagne. In more modern science fiction, the reader can look to Moorcock's "Eternal Champion" cycle, Bova's "Orion series" and now Sean McMullen's The Centurion's Empire.
McMullen postulates a vast hidden ruling cabal in the Roman period, dating back to Celcinus's disovery of venenum immortale during the Etruscan period. This "poison of immortality" has permitted the creation of a group of ruling elite called the Temporians, who live in a sort of Alpine Shangri-La alternating between periods of induced hibernation and activity. When the novel opens, they have their collective eye on the ostensible title hero of McMullen's novel,Vitellan Bavalius, a Roman born in AD 51, for membership in their group.
Although the novel follows Vitellan through the ages, with stops in England (870), France (1358), and Australia (2028), he frequently does not appear as the main character. Vitellan is introduced at the beginning of the Roman section, but the majority of that section follows the adventures of the thief Lars and his raid on the Temporians' complex. Vitellan continues to play supporting roles to Alfred the Great, an English free company of the Village Corporation in subsequent sections.
One of the things which can make or break this type of historical novel is the attention the author pays to historical detail. Unfortunately, while McMullen's ideas are interesting and could bring a fresh slant to the "eternal hero" idea, his historical research seems to be minimal. From the most basic, his names frequently seem to be anachronistic, to more esoteric difficulties with attitudes and beliefs, McMullen does not paint realistic pictures of he societies through which Vitellan dallies.
The biggest difficulty with The Centurion's Empire is the inability for McMullen to create the necessary suspension of disbelief. In addition to the hidden cabal of the Temporians with the James Bond-style complex in the first century AD, McMullen includes a seven-century vendetta carried forward against a supposedly immortal man.
McMullen uses a simple writing style which doesn't get in the way of his story, although on some occasions, particular during the prologue, it almost make it feel as if he were writing a juvenile novel. McMullen also offers brief synopses at the end of each section to let the the reader know what happens to the main characters after Vitellan returns to his slumber. These sections are a nice touch, although they feel slightly contrived at times. These sections can also be proved false in flashback sequences during the following sections. This gives the feel that the various sections were written separately and then tied together, although I do not believe these stories have previously appeared.
Australian SF authors are currently hot on the market. Whether this is because the Australian field is heating up or merely because the Northern hemisphere is discovering them in anticipation of the 1999 Worldcon is difficult to say, but in 1997 Tor published Stephen Dedman's first novel, The Art of Arrow Cutting, followed in 1998 with Sean McMullen's The Centurion's Empire. Greg Egan has been building an international reputation for several years and 1998 marks the second annual Best Australian Science Fiction anthology. In some ways, the Australian field is in its infancy, but at the same time, it is showing innovation which has been missing from a lot of US/UK SF for many years.
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