After a string of millennia-spanning science fiction epics -- the Manifold trilogy, the Destiny's Children saga (Coalescent, Exultant, et al.), A Time Odyssey (coauthored with Arthur C. Clarke), and more -- Stephen Baxter takes on the alternate history with an ambitious tale beginning in first-century Britain and involving an extraordinary prophecy that will play an unlikely role in the country's tumultuous future.
During a time of "great historical flux" -- the invasion and systematic conquest of Britain by Claudius, the birth and crucifixion of Christ, etc. -- a British countrywoman who is dying in the throes of chilbirth utters an unworldly prophecy in Latin, a language she has never spoken before. The foretelling, written down by a family member who has traveled abroad and is fluent in Latin, turns out to be eerily accurate. Is it divine intervention, witchcraft, or something even more improbable?
Baxter wrote numerous alternate histories early in his writing career (Anti-Ice, Voyage, et al.) but Emperor -- the first installment of his Time's Tapestry saga -- is written on another scale altogether. Spanning innumerable generations, featuring dozens of integral characters, and dealing with a multitude of themes (the influence of Roman culture, the destabilization of British traditions, the rise of Christianity, etc.), Baxter has managed to bring the mind-blowing magnitude of his sci-fi epics to this alternate history. Readers, however, may be a little less than thrilled by the book's decidedly lackluster ending. With many intriguing plotlines left unresolved, it's evident Baxter is taking this series somewhere: Exactly where will have to remain a mystery until the second installment, tentatively entitled Conqueror, is released. Paul Goat Allen