The Ocean of Years (Chronicles of Solace #2), Roger MacBride Allen

Bantam Spectra, 2002, 441 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58364-6

It is true that publishers are in the business of making money, not telling the truth. Still, you have to wonder at the relationship between the two when marketing ploys backfire. When, for instance, books like Roger MacBride Allen’s The Depths of Time come out and the only reference to it as the first book of a trilogy is buried, by inference, in the author’s note. Readers (and reviewers) charge through the novel only to find an ending that doesn’t solve much. And then Bantam Spectra wonders why sales tank.

Unfortunately, sequel The Ocean of Years suffered from the stupidity of the original book’s marketing: Whereas the first volume was available in trade paperback format, this one was relegated to a cheapo mass-market paperback debut edition. As consolation, the follow-up book is more forthright about what it is, as can be read on the title page: “Second book of The Chronicles of Solace.”

When we’d last left series protagonist Anton Koffield, he had just found out why he was marooned 128 years in a future not his own: A devilish plot by mastermind Oskar DeSilvo to prevent him from telling a secret too soon. But a lot of things happen in 128 years, and so Koffield also happened to come across nagging clues leading him to the current hideout of DeSilvo. As The Depths of Time ended, we were left with one certitude: Koffield was going to solve the puzzle, track down DeSilvo and ask him a few good questions.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise if he does exactly that in the sequel. Travelling with a band of characters with as much interest in DeSilvo’s answers, Koffield makes his way to the Solar System of year 5341. Then their group splits up in search of clues, sending emissaries to Earth itself and the Grand Library in orbit around Neptune.

One of the book’s highlight happens then, as three characters make their way through the gargantuan Permanent Physical Collection, a mega-library to end all libraries. So big that they have to hike in it, making their way from own human-livable reading room to another (the books are kept in a pure nitrogen atmosphere to ensure their preservation) to find out the real state of the physical terraforming collection as opposed to the one in the digital archives. Library freaks are sure to enjoy this passage, much like another latter one in a forbidden museum. MacBride Allen surely knows how to exploit environments that should be dear to anyone likely to be reading this trilogy.

Secrets, archives, knowledge and patient clue-hunting form the backbone of this second volume. Save for a desperate what-are-they-going-to-do-now sequence in chapters 18-20, and a tiny act of physical violence at the very end of the book, there isn’t much conventional action in The Ocean of Years. It’s all exploration, searching, deduction and cogitation. Old-school science-fiction by any yardstick, this is the kind of comfortable genre novel that would be familiar for any pre-New Wave SF reader in the Asimov vein. There is nothing beyond a PG rating in this trilogy so far.

Alas, the pacing is just about what you’d expect from brainy novels that take place in libraries. Just like in the first volume, the first hundred pages don’t mean much. Just like in the first volume, we spend a lot of time going from one place to another. Just like in the first volume, the characters think a lot before they ever act. It’s not a bad thing per se (it certainly creates an atmosphere, maintains the suspense and heighten the action whenever there is some) but there’s no telling what a more succinct version of the same events might have gained. The prose is compelling enough that it doesn’t matter a whole lot if it’s 400 pages rather than 200, but if the difference would have been a single 600-pages tome rather than a full 1200-pages trilogy, well, I know where my loyalties lies.

Still, don’t think that I’m giving anything less than a good rating to this book and the series as it stands at the end of the second volume. There’s a lot of well-developed ideas here, a bunch of sympathetic characters, crystal-clear prose and a great sense of discovery as we peel away the layers of this imagined universe. Stay tuned for the final review of this trilogy.

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