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Monday, January 26, 2009

“End of the Century” by Chris Roberson (Reviewed by Fábio Fernandes)

Order “End of the CenturyHERE

Good writers don´t necessarily try to “make it new”, as Ezra Pound used to say. Pound, alas, is dead, and so is Modernism, for that matter. What good writers do, though, is tell a compelling story mixing and remixing old tropes and experimenting with clichés so they can still bring the reader some joy and surprise, suspending disbelief, even when he or she is pretty much sure that all the important, interesting things were already said and done (another assumption which should be very dead by now, by the way).

That´s what Chris Roberson does in his new novel, “End of The Century”—he mixes very different storylines and characters in a 21st century approach to a more than revisited plot premise: the Quest for the Holy Grail.

First, in the Sixth Century CE, we follow young Galaad of Glevum in his travel to Caer Llundain, also known as Londinium, where he intends to consult with High King Artor about the strange visions he´s been having since he suffered an accident. This pilgrimage will make him, Artor and his Knights of the Round Table, go to a very strange place and face a really fearsome—and apparently supernatural—adversary.

The second storyline takes place in 1897, in Victorian times London. There, we meet Sandford Blank and Roxanne Bonaventure, a couple of very unusual Victorian detectives, not dissimiliar in gestures and actions to that famous TV couple of the sixties, The Avengers (Blank and Bonaventure, reminded me of Mr. Steed and Emma Peel—though more him than her, actually). Together, the duo faces the evil deeds of a serial killer, the Torso Killer, who cuts off heads and dismembers bodies . . . and not only female ones as Jack the Ripper did.

In the last storyline, we meet young Alice Fell, an American runaway girl in 1999 London intent on unraveling a mystery involving visions of a wheel—visions that she’s been having since she suffered an accident as an infant. Completely clueless and lost in London, she is attacked by a mysterious figure and is saved in the nick of time by an elderly gay ex-secret agent...

Roberson interweaves the three timelines very deftly, making the narrative an integrated, non-stop piece. The Galaad tale is told almost in an epic style. Dialogues are realistic, but the situations they come to face are indeed of an epic scale, reminiscent of Gene Wolfe in stories as “The Knight”. The Blank/Bonaventure narrative reads like a Sherlockian mystery, with a fair share of action scenes as well. The Alice Fell story is a high-paced espionage thriller, complete with secret hideouts (the entrance by a toilet stall is definitely Avengers-like) and bizarre futuristic weapons. Her newfound friend seems to be a more tranquil, cool version of Moorcock´s famed Jerry Cornelius.

In their respective timelines, the band of knights, the Victorian detective duo, and the unlikely couple of runaway girl/gay agent battle a bloody enemy, known only as the Huntsman, a being no longer human and which is always followed by a pack of equally transformed hounds. They must vanquish this enemy in order to fulfill their destinies, whatever they are—and they are everything but simple.

The coincidence is that I was reading Sideways in Crime at the same time I started reading “End of The Century”, so I read Roberson´s short story “Death on the Crosstime Express” and learned about his concept of the Myriad. Well, I not only love Michael Moorcock´s Multiverse, but Alan Moore and Kim Newman (to whom Chris dedicates the book, along with Moorcock) are among my favorite writers. So I figured “End of the Century” would make a good reading.

I was wrong. “End of the Century” is EXCELLENT reading.

One of the most important things the reader should keep in mind about “End of the Century” is that it stands all by itself. You may have never read anything by Chris Roberson before, and you will understand every bit of the story—or the stories, since there are three of them alternating with each other almost until the end, when they merge in a very coherent way, tying all (or almost all) the loose ends.

On the other hand, even though the cover is beautifully done (and Alice Fell is portrayed almost to perfection, except that Roberson describes her as having a nose ring, not a pierced lip, as she is drawn in the cover), I found it deceiving (and just a little bit disappointing, conceptually speaking), because it almost tricked me to believe this was a girl´s adventure—no, I don´t have anything against girl´s adventure books, but they are not my cup of tea, actually. If I hadn´t read Chris Roberson before, I could have dismissed this novel, or at the very best put it aside for a few weeks.

But one should know better than to dismiss a book for its cover. I didn´t do it, and it was all for the best. Because “End of The Century” is one of the best 2009 books I´ve read in 2008. Roberson raised the bar of my expectations.


Karen Mahoney said...

What a wonderful review... You keep doing this to me! ;)

*adds to wishlist*

Fábio said...

We do our best, Karen! :-)

Cindy said...

I have so much to read for 2009, I will be adding this to my to read book list!

Thanks for the review!

ediFanoB said...

The book was on my list before I read your excellent review.

But now I know why it is on my list.

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