1999. On the threshold of a new millennium, the novelist Daniel Langham lives a reclusive life on an idyllic Greek island, hiding away from humanity and the events of the past. All that changes, however, when he meets artist Caroline Platt and finds himself falling in love. But what is his secret, and what are the horrors that haunt him?
1935. Writers Jonathon Langham and Edward Vaughan are summoned from London by their editor friend Jasper Carnegie to help investigate strange goings on in Hopton Wood. What they discover there – no less than a strange creature from another world – will change their lives forever. What they become, and their link to the novelist of the future, is the subject of Eric Brown’s most ambitious novel to date.
The barrier for entry to science fiction must be among the most impenetrable in any genre. Our world is hard enough to understand, after all; others entire - even if they are only our own, advanced through the requisite millennia - demand such intent and dedication to come to terms with in any meaningful sense that I can hardly blame the leagues of readers who turn tail at the merest mention McDonald or McAuley.
And that's not even to speak of bona fide hard SF, a sub sub-species of literature wherein the science is arguably more integral to the fiction than the fiction itself... which seems a little like missing the point, if you ask me.
Behold, however, at the very other end of the spectrum, the antidote to rigour and rote: Eric Brown. With the Bengal Station trilogy, Helix and Engineman, Brown has deftly ascended through the ranks to become an undisputed master of accessible science fiction, and likewise, his latest is a brandy of a book. The Kings of Eternity is easy reading indeed; warm and finely spiced, it goes down smoothly, leaving a pleasant, not-at-all overpowering aftertaste imprinted upon your palette. It is too "an incredibly optimistic piece of work... full of hope for the future," (p.53) which reads as if it's leapt through the decades from the pages of some fondly recalled scientific romance of olde.
The Kings of Eternity is a tale of two tales. The first begins in the 30s, on the eve of the Second World War, when struggling novelist Jonathon Langham is recruited to get to the bottom of certain otherworldly goings-on. Glad of the opportunity to escape London life, Langham stoppers his scepticism, packs a bag and travels to Cranley Grange, where in an impossible clearing in the woods, he glimpses another world.
Meanwhile, in 1999, another author, rather more popular than his Papa: Langham's grandson Daniel has fashioned for himself a home away from home a Greek island so remote that the media aren't likely to trouble him there. On Kallithea Daniel meets a woman - Caroline Platt, an artist unlucky thus far in love - only to fall head over heels for her just as his hard-earned idyll comes suddenly and irrevocably under threat when a journalist arrives... a journalist and something worse.
As a pair, the Langhams are of course rather writerly narrators, fit to put one in mind of a who's-who of Stephen King protagonists. Each has his own routine; each sees the world in beats and scenes; each leads the selfsame life of solitude and quiet contemplation we imagine writers must. I'll admit to worrying at the outset that the myriad similarities between Jonathon and Daniel would leave the dual narratives which run through The Kings of Eternity vague and indistinct from one another, but my fears proved needless: Brown makes a point of the parallels, in fact, lulling one - as if by hypnosis - as these characters and their respective eras whip past before your eyes. So too is the character clash soundly resolved come the last act.
Eric Brown speaks of The Kings of Eternity in no uncertain terms. On his website he proclaims it "the best thing I've written. Period. I feel for the novel as I've felt for nothing else I've done. It's also quite unlike anything else I've written. It's SF, but hard-to-categorise SF." I'd take exception to that last assertion - that The Kings of Eternity is in any sense difficult, come to that - but otherwise, I'm inclined to agree with the author. Brown's latest has been on the drawing board for a decade, and short some decidedly unnatural dialogue (p.63), it shows; in its imagery, its precision, its pace and its ultimate profundity, this narrative shines brightly because of the delicate care and attention Brown has lavished upon it.
In the great tradition of science-fiction as once it was, before the intellectual prerequisites of an appreciation of the genre grew to include quantum mechanics and the prophesied supernova, The Kings of Eternity is a novel about discovery: about the discovery of other worlds and other species only - I repeat only - insofar as it is about the discovery of love, and one another. There is precious little SF in the foreground of The Kings of Eternity, and removed from such rigour, what unfolds in Eric Brown's best yet is a charmingly timeless tale, lithe, powerful and tremendously affecting.