Daniel Roy's Reviews > Coalescent

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter
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's review
May 03, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: sf, contemporary

Let's be upfront about it: Coalescent is not a book for everyone. It alienates Baxter fans who are used to distant-future high-concept space opera, and it alienates casual fans who might pick this up as a historical novel. Essentially, it pleases neither crowd. So, is it worth reading? Absolutely, but you better be patient.

The story starts at the Fall of the Roman Empire, and follows a young British Roman woman named Regina as her world falls apart around her. The majority of the novel focuses on Regina's trials, as she escapes war-torn Britain and ends up in Rome by way of Avalon. (More on this in a moment.) In parallel with this, we follow the actions of a mild-mannered British man, a descendant of Regina, who discovers he has a long-lost twin sister secluded in an Italian religious order.

If this doesn't sound like exciting SF, well, that's because it ain't. The story of Regina is somewhat interesting, but a lot of time is spent by Baxter showing us how much historical research he put into making this a geniune historical novel. There's a somewhat interesting segue to the story as Regina joins King Arthur's court, becoming the historical inspiration for Morgan by virtue of being Merlin's rival; however, it serves no real purpose except being clever, and actually detracts from the goals of Regina's story arc, which is to provide a historically believeable context to the founding of the Order.

The modern storyline, following a descendant of Regina as he comes to grip with the existence of a long-lost twin, also unfortunately feels like filler. This is mostly because the main character, mild-mannered, middle-aged George Poole, is not that interesting at all. Fortunately, his eccentric and paranoid geek friend, Peter McLachlan, provides for tasty SF ideas such as galactic-scale weapons and Dark Matter starships. These moments are few and far between, but they provide a hint as to the greatness that is to come.

If you manage to get through the dreary start, things suddenly kick into overdrive. Regina gets to Rome, and founds a secretive Order that still exists centuries later. George Poole, in modern times, discovers the ramifications of the Order as he finds his lost sister. That's when things get really crazy, and we finally understand where Baxter was going all along.

I'm not gonna spoil it for you; I had the pleasure of reading this novel without forewarning, and I suggest you do the same. Suffice to say that the point of Coalescent is to provide a deep reflection on the nature of human society, and in this aspect, it more than delivers. If this kind of payoff seems appealing to you regardless of the obstacles I described previously, then go ahead and pick up Coalescent.

In the end, Coalescent returns to solid SF grounds, and the perspective is dizzying and highly satisfying. As a book of Big Ideas, Coalescent works perfectly, and is well worth the time investment. It's a book that rewards patience, in spades.

Coalescent is technically the first of a trilogy called Destiny's Children. The novel was strong enough to make me pick up the sequel, Exultant, but I must warn you that the sequel is nowhere near the level of Coalescent. Yes, passing references are made to it in the sequel novel, but they amount to a poor novel paying hommage to a much superior one, and you won't miss anything by skipping Exultant. Do yourself a favor and consider Coalescent a stand-alone story.
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