Review: “Coalescent,” Stephen Baxter

Pros: Fascinating story
Cons: Misleading back cover text; confusing ending; non-obvious that it’s a series book
Rating: 4 out of 5

 

George Poole’s father has died. This sends him on a slow path to ferret out family secrets that he didn’t know existed: a missing twin he didn’t know he had; an older sister who doesn’t want anything to do with him; distant family with even greater secrets. It also connects him with an old school friend who’s been helping out his father: Peter, a conspiracy theorist and ex-police officer.

In parallel with George’s search is the story of Regina, a very distant ancestor who lived in Britain when Rome lost control of it. Regina, who starts out as a spoiled, privileged child, lives through vast changes in circumstance. These leave her hardened and calculating, and she’ll do anything it takes to preserve herself and her family line. Instinct eventually leads her to shape and mold an outwardly-Christian Order into something that will become a wholly unique society–something that George stumbles into in the present.

 

Until I looked up Coalescent (Destiny’s Children, Bk. 1) on Amazon, I couldn’t even tell that this book was part of a series. See my series books rant if you want to know why that sort of thing drives me insane. The back cover text also led me to believe that this was a very different flavor of book than it turned out to be. If you haven’t read the back cover text of the book yet, then avoid doing so–the teaser spoils plot developments from late in the book! Don’t worry–the ‘teaser’ above is my own, not from the back of the book.

Almost the entirety of that supposed teaser applies not to the entire book, but to the end of the book. That’s right–instead of providing the premise, they provide the climax (and some of that description is actually incorrect). That’s all kinds of wrong. I’d point out the parts that don’t match reality except that you ought to have some surprises left; spoiling the story in the teaser is just plain mean. Also, the text presents an impression of a book that is heavily sci-fi and suspenseful, which simply isn’t the case. The majority of the book is a combination of George slowly tracking down his sister–very slowly–in parallel with the Order’s origin story in ancient Rome. Which means that most of the book is actually a historical with no sci-fi content whatsoever. There’s also virtually no suspense to the pacing–it’s a slow unfolding of history, location, and plot, with a gradual, immersive pacing and a great deal of information to impart through the characters and their dialogues.

Here’s the really frustrating part of that: it’s a good book. Despite the fact that historicals aren’t my thing, I’m not fond of didactic books that spend whole pages on geography and history lessons, and I was really looking forward to the SF/suspense book that I thought I was getting, it totally hooked me in. I loved it. But people tend to react badly to things that aren’t what they’re expecting. You think you’re eating something savory and it turns out to be sweet, your first reaction is likely to be viscerally negative, even if it’s a delicious sweet food. Or to use a more relevant example, when the movie “The Fifth Element” first came out the ads were serious and grandiose, and people reacted badly to the humorous and whimsical movie they found when they went to see it.

The characterization is interesting. Peter’s background as a police officer makes him a little more than the average, run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorist, as do some of his actions later in the book. George has edges to his personality that keep him from being the dull milquetoast most people seem to think he is. Regina, of course, is the star of the show. Her drive to survive, and some of the things she does in order to do so are fascinating. Note that there’s some dark material in here–the sacking of places by invaders is rarely anything but horrific. I also appreciated the use of Lucia, a member of the Order who doesn’t entirely fit in, as a means to explore the modern-day Order.

The slow unfolding of both stories engaged me despite the fact that I’d really wanted a suspenseful novel and don’t normally read historicals. I found some of the epilogue material, which jumps ahead very far in time, confusing as all Hell, but that didn’t ruin the rest of the book for me. In order to rate this book I had to divorce it from that problematic back-cover text, because it really is a good book, and that text might not be the author’s doing. I just hope that my review allows you to decide whether you’d enjoy the book based on the actual content–and I can hope that my warnings early on might have persuaded you to avoid that back cover text.

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