(HarperCollins/Eos, $25.95, 396 pages, hardcover; published in May 2003. UK: Gollancz, £10.99, 385 pages, trade paperback, also available in hardback priced £16.99, published August 2003. Gollancz, £6.99, 385 pages, paperback, first published 2003, this edition published 22 July 2004.)
Roma Eterna spans more than 1500 years in a world in which the Roman Empire neverfell. The divergence that led to this alternate history reaches back into antiquity: Moses failed to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. This is divulged in the opening vignette, in a discussion between two historians.
Taken individually, all but one of the stories in Roma Eterna are quite good -- the exception being "An Outpost of the Realm", which features the book's only female narrator. Robert Silverberg, for all his considerable storytelling skills, is rarely at ease with female characters, and this story, with its unconvincing first-person narration, is an unfortunately pointed example of that weakness.
Certain faults weaken the foundation of Silverberg's grand creation when considered as a whole. The author concentrates too heavily The Years of Rice and Salt (2002).on the upper middle class, those close to the throne but far from poverty, thus exploring his world almost exclusively from a privileged perspective. The language is at times too vague, lacking the details and descriptions that could illuminate how the world changes from one era to the next. The cultural influence of the world outside the Empire -- China, the New World -- is left unsatisfactorily unexplored, especially in comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson's culturally complex alternate history
But Silverberg sprinkles Roma Eterna with just enough Jewish presence to set up the powerful final story, "To the Promised Land", in which a self-appointed prophet attempts to lead Hebrews to a new promised land beyond the reach of the Roman Empire, bringing us back full circle thematically.
Roma Eterna is an entertaining read, with a generous handful of exceptionally engaging stories. It's a shame that it falls short of the great book that it could have been.
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© Claude Lalumière 12 July 2003, 20 September 2003