Book Review: Eternity Road: Strong World Building and Weak Characters

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I was caught by the blurb on the back of Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road. It is not my usual genre by any standards. It is adult, post-apocalyptic, journey fiction. A plague tore through the population. Centuries on, humanity has grouped again into large cities though much of the knowledge of the eons has been lost—everything from basic geography to Christian philosophy to the printing press. The main transport is horseback though man-powered and current-driven barges and boats travel the Mississippi and Hudson. Recently several cities have formed alliances and unified their governments. People remain nostalgic for the time before the virus, awed by the giant and enduring ruins of that culture, called the Roadmakers.

It was refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic world that was neither technologically advanced nor dystopian. Life in Illyria is fairly civilized. There are not government-sponsored death matches or even a focus on government corruption within the text.

McDevitt does a very good job building new cultures and societies out of the scraps of ours. Language evolution is visible in the names. There are new gods and religious traditions. He uses the journey to explore several ways of living, and particularly several views of sexuality, with which he frankly seems a little preoccupied to me, but then I read a lot of kid lit.

I’d expected from the blurb, a greater emphasis on the power of fiction—or a greater connection between this plot and that of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain’s novel serves only as proof that a sanctuary might have been discovered by a seemingly unsuccessful expedition where Roadmaker culture—American culture of at least several decades beyond present day—might have persisted or been preserved. There is still however a strong undertone of the value of literature to dandle every reader’s soul.

Chaka and Avila seemed very promisingly feminist characters. As too many do though, I felt as if this male writer didn’t quite know how to handle them. I don’t like to criticize on that front when my own story features at least one male protagonist, but Chaka particularly had the chance. She is the first to call for an expedition and the one to gather the crew, but she is never considered for a leadership role and seemed to not consider herself for one either. She is too preoccupied with the male characters, to willing to rely on male protection and leadership, making her more of a male fantasy than a feminist role model. Avila’s curiosity, readiness to break tradition, and resourcefulness make her a more feminist model, but she is also given less time in the text. I do have to give McDevitt a few points for his attempts to write feminist characters in these and then the very briefly present Judge… who is never named.

In truth I think it is less a problem of not knowing how to handle female protagonists than a problem of not knowing how to handle characters or maybe a group of characters. None of the characters develop as fully as I’d have liked. I had a difficult time distinguishing between the men of the expedition. McDevitt made attempts to differentiate them and to have them exhibit growth, but the characters never came alive.

Without vivacious characters, I had a difficult time investing in the journey, which, granted, took the team through some interesting ruins but one ruin did not really build to another so that the journey read as scenes of excitement bridged by lulls filled all too often with the characters’ romantic and lustful relationships with one another. One Goodreads reviewer compared the book to a bus tour, and that’s not inaccurate. Journey fiction is difficult. The lull between adventures is difficult. It really takes at least one strong character to uphold the reader’s attention. Stronger characters are I think one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings works better than The Hobbit, for example. The Lord of the Rings has a whole company of strong characters. For me, Bilbo is perhaps the only standout in his company, the dwarves mostly blending together in the text. For me, Eternity Road’s crew seemed more like the dwarves of The Hobbit, acting mostly as a group than a collection of individuals. That might be one more reason why the romances between the characters felt so jarring.

***

McDevitt, Jack. Eternity Road. New York: Harper Voyager-HarperCollins, 2011. First printed 1997.

This review is not endorsed by Jack McDevitt, Harper Voyager, or HarperCollins Publishers .  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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