The Kings of Eternity (2011), by Eric Brown, is a tale of divisions. The primary, narrative separation is between the years 1935 and 1999. In the former, two writers are summoned from London to help an editor friend out with "strange lights in the woods". In the latter, a reclusive author on a remote Greek island decides whether or not to open himself up to making a new friend.
Of course, there's also everything in-between.
In 1935, one of the writers is Jonathan Langham. He's got a vaguely promising career in front of him, a vaguely satisfying relationship with an actress and a vague sense of purpose that's somehow wrapped up with his dying father. His relationship takes a turn for the worse (oh, actresses!) so when his slightly bonkers editor calls and asks him out to the country, Jonathan jumps at the chance. He needs a break and the run of the brandy bottle - the chance of a mystery is an unasked-for bonus.
And, flaky as the editor is, there is indeed a mystery in Hopton Wood. Every eight days there's a strange sort of light show in the woods. As Jonathan and his friends trek out (slightily boozily) for a viewing, they take in far more than they expected. The light show seems to give glimpses of other worlds - and if it can show them, maybe they can reach them as well...
In 1999, Daniel Langham, grandson of Jonathan, is a famous novelist. His piles of bestseller money help fund his isolated lifestyle on the island of Kallithéa. He works to a very strict routine. He writes in the morning, eats his meals at the same cafe every day and sips a beer while watching the stars at night. Occasionally he's disturbed by tabloid journalists, but he's always been able to run them off. At the start of the book, his comfortable routine is disturbed by a new neighbor, an artist named Caroline Platt. Against his better wishes, he's drawn to her. He also has a new admirer - a porcine English stalker with a little too much insight into his life.
The Kings of Eternity is a very difficult book to review without spoilers and I'm afraid both my praise and my concerns are tied up in the twists that are unveiled through the first three-quarters of the book. If you don't mind spoilers - or have read the book - press on. If not, I can only give you an airy "this is a very interesting book" brush off, and you should go away now.
Still here? Don't say I didn't warn you.
As the two sides of the narrative both unspool, the story grows - oddly - much simpler. Daniel Langham and Jonathan Langham are the same man. The portal in the woods vomits forth an alien gun battle and the three young literati wind up as accidental accomplices to an interstellar freedom fighter. One of the men - Jasper - joins their alien friend in the war against the reptiloid oppressors. The other two, including Jonathan, stay behind, baffled by the whole encounter.
Their bafflement soon turns to wonder - Jasper contacts his Earthbound friends from a universe far, far away and - much to their delight, sends them the secret of immortality. They each have a dose for themselves and a dose for the loved one of their choosing. (Actresses need not apply.)
So that, in a nutshell, is why Charles-né-Jonathan is such a recluse. He's afraid of alien assassins and even more scared that he'll be found out by his human planet-mates, spelling the end to his comfortalbe little life.
What Eric Brown does so very, very well is divide the narrative even further. While Jonathan and the left-behinds are on Earth, trying to figure out what to do with themselves for... well... eternity, they're occasionally getting dispatches from Jasper. Mr. Brown makes the brave sort of narrative decision that I've grown to expect from someone like China Miéville: he follows the wrong guy. The objective of The Kings of Eternity is extremely ambitious - Mr. Brown sets out to make Jonathan's immortal ennui more of a conflict than Jasper's space-battles with the serpent-kings of Alpha Centauri. There are, for lovers of laser pistols, a few token action scenes on Earth, but they're not much, and they're used almost entirely as means to push the plot along.
Even with the focus on Jonathan/Daniel's very small slice of eternity, there's quite not enough space in The Kings of Eternity. Given the amount of doorstop sandwiches littering the genre aisles, here's a book that actually would've benefitted from another hundred pages. By the time Jonathan has encountered aliens, received immortality and revealed himself as (eventually-going-to-be) Daniel, the bulk of the book is already over. Jonathan travels through the decades in an increasingly desultory fashion. He meets with his friends, withdraws into his work, meets with his friends again, travels a bit and eventually plonks himself down in the Mediterranean.
As he ages (or doesn't), he has fewer and fewer meaningful encounters with the rest of the world. In fact, with the exception of the other "Kings of Eternity", the only connection he makes is with a young drug-abuser named Sam. She is deliberately crafted as a sort of object - she's as detached from the world as Jonathan is, but in a completely different way. He doesn't connect with her as an equal, but his mounting loneliness starts to trick him into believing that "saving her" with immortality may save him as well. When this plan falls apart, he withdraws entirely - not even making another friend until Caroline shows up in 1999. The Kings of Eternity begins as if it is going to dive into the psyche of the immortal everyman, but then, to my disappointment, never fully commits itself.
The relationship between Daniel and Caroline also gets relatively short shrift. Daniel has to overcome his paranoid instincts to connect with anyone, no matter how impersonally. As the drift of the book becomes clear, Daniel has to trust Caroline. He then has to fall in love with her. Finally, he then gets to make the Decision - whether or not she's going to become his immortal beloved. And even that isn't his final decision (rather belatedly, I'll leave the book some secrets). Mr. Brown spends a great deal of time on the initial stages - Daniel meeting Caroline and learning to trust her. Love and Deciding both happen with unnatural rapidity.
The Kings of Eternity is all too brief. It is a thoughtful, provocative book that sets up a bigger story than it has a chance to tell. It accomplishes a great deal, but only by eliding some of the most meaningful parts. Mr. Brown's choice to ignore the space opera and focus on the human drama is an insightful one, and that alone is cause to recommend the book. Beyond that, it is a surprisingly calm and fluid read, gracefully skimming over the years with the same detachment displayed by its immortal protagonist. If my regret is that this book was not longer, it is a very good book indeed.
By Jared (@pornokitsch), who actually wrote this six months ago and never posted it. Doh.