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If you’re a fan of Jack McDevitt’s work, then you know he is a rare find, a science fiction author who is a storyteller at the core. Given his ability to enchant the reader, he’s easily the sound heir to genre’s titans like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.
The vast genre of post-apocalyptic fiction has blessed us with some of the best bangers, and Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road is right up there. The apocalyptic event that ravaged almost the entire human race is first mentioned as just “the plague”. Thankfully, an epilogue later expounded on the phenomenon, which happened in the distant past.
It’s been 306 years since the birth of the post-apocalyptic world and 1700 years after the mass death. Nothing is as valuable as the only remaining copy of Mark Twain’s 1889 sensational hit A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The last known owner of the book, Karik Endine, committed suicide immediately after handing it to Chaka Milana.
Kirk’s dying moments leave more questions than answers, chief among them being the mystery surrounding how he got hold of the book. Why would he want to keep how he got the book a secret? Even more baffling, why did he choose to leave it with a young lady he barely knew?
Among other rumors, legends, and mysteries that capture the attention of the residents of this post-apocalyptic world include the existence of Haven. Thought to be the repository of lost technology and knowledge of the past world, this place is rumored to be located somewhere to the east of Mississippi Valley. Suspiciously, Karik Endine and other curious folk made a voyage in search of this place, but he came back alone.
Another expedition to find Haven was arranged a few years after Karik’s unfortunate suicide. This time the pack includes a woodsman, Silas Glote, Karik’s son, Chaka Milana, a former priestess, and several others. In their expedition, they meet both friendly and unfriendly people, encounter mind-boggling remnants of the technology of the bygone era, and confront both hardship and danger.
Their search for the mysterious Haven in the perilous northern hemisphere makes for a disheartening yet hopeful and inspiring read full of adventure. The whole saga plays out much like Storm Song’s beloved The Lost Eden. It broaches the classic post-apocalyptic fiction quagmire: would the survivors of an apocalypse be able to reinvent technologies like cell phones, cars, etc.?
The book asks an even more interesting question – how much does the world command us versus how much we command it? McDevitt paints a post-apocalyptic world replete with decay, backwardness, and then there are the so-called “Roadmasters”, the primary guardians of the lost technology.
We’ve come to prize McDevitt for his storytelling prowess, but Eternity Road doesn’t quite live up to the hype generated by his other notable works, such as Alex Benedict and Academy series. Even though the story is entertaining, brilliant, and interesting, the characters seem half-baked, fairly nonsensical for a fiction title, and not as compelling as those found in the aforementioned bestsellers. McDevitt’s imaginative brilliance when it comes to character development doesn’t simply shine through the pages.
What makes the characters somehow implausible is their ability to read and write English even after living in a world in ruins for over 1700 years. Everyone on the expedition team, for instance, can make out Tacitus’ esoteric translation. It’s hard for some readers, including me, to believe that the ability to read remained intact while the knowledge needed to build a locomotive vanished. Well, did the apocalypse wiped out scientists and engineers, while sparing linguists?
That’s not a deal-breaker, though, all the more so that Eternity Road is still far better than some of the best science fiction books. The storyline is competently crafted, the pace is fast, and the writing style is versatile. Throughout the book, the reader is forced to wonder about the characters’ location and what they are doing/seeing, making this one of the best books to read.
In conclusion, Eternity Road is a fluid, interesting, and imagination-provoking read with great potential. Save for character holes, you will absolutely fall in love with the symbology sprinkled all over the story. Adventure, suspension, and aha moments are the juice of the title, but McDevitt was careful enough not to go overboard with them.
All in all, this science fiction book should strike a chord with fans of not only post-apocalyptic fiction but also adventure and quest novels. There’s a little bit of fantasy and coming-of-age in it. However, if McDevitt’s best works like Academy and Coming Home left you high and dry, you might not get your fix from Eternity Road.