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Book cover art by Stephan Martiniere.
Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Watch your back, Peter F. Hamilton. Kay Kenyon is muscling in on your turf. If The Entire and the Rose isn't the most audacious and exhilarating epic SF saga to hit the racks since the Night's Dawn trilogy, then I might as well throw in the towel and take up reading vampire romance trash like everybody else. The third volume of Kenyon's dazzling and inventive series has an action-driven forward momentum that keeps the suspense taut through well over 450 pages of narrative. Having introduced her remarkable alternate universe and its colorful array of characters, both human and alien, in the previous books, Kenyon simply cuts loose, ratcheting the story's action and dramatic tension right off the scale. If you still haven't added Kay Kenyon to your reading lists, City without End leaves you without any good excuses to keep ignoring her.

They say there are no more original plots, and that may be true in a pedantic sense. But there are certainly fresh approaches to familiar ideas, and new ways to contextualize even such hoary old tropes as the Hero's Journey and the redemptive power of love. In the preceding books, Bright of the Sky and A World Too Near, Kenyon established her artificial universe, the Entire; the way it was fueling itself by slowly burning up our own universe (called the Rose by Entire natives); and the desperate race by the reluctant human adventurer Titus Quinn to stop this from happening, a mission he finds he must sacrifice a chance at recovering his own family to achieve.

City without End, as the best series fiction should do, builds upon what has come before and expands the overall story's scope. Kenyon has now developed her characters well enough to structure the story as a proper ensemble piece, where the prior volumes, while building the ensemble, kept the plot focused mostly on Quinn and his estranged — and thoroughly naturalized to her life in the Entire — daughter Sydney. Here, Sydney makes an uneasy truce with her father as she leads an insurgency against the lords of the Entire, the ruthless hivemind alien Tarig (about whom a crucial secret has been discovered). The Tarig still fear the nanotech weapon Quinn had a chance to use, but didn't. To lure him, they appoint Sydney — whom the natives call Sen Ni — to the figurehead position of ruler of Rim City, a bizarre and vast metropolis that rings the core of the Entire, billions of miles long but only a block wide. But Sydney soon finds herself wielding real power, and gaining the love of her people, when she prevents the Tarig from committing wanton massacre in response to the growing rebellion.

Helice Maki, the avaricious Earth girl who has wormed her way into Sydney's confidence, is part of a conspiracy back in the Rose that may be the most monstrous ever conceived. The intellectual aristocracy that has divided Earth society into a whole new classist system based on aptitude and IQ tests has led to a plot to reboot the human race in the Entire by allowing a selected clique of qualified, top-scoring "savvies" to which point, a mechanism with the most horrible possible consequences will be triggered. But one of the plot's masterminds, Lamar Gelde (symbolically named, I suspect, as he's got no integrity, a.k.a. balls), makes a critical mistake when, out of fondness for Titus's sister-in-law Caitlin, he fudges her and her children's test scores. This simply raises Caitlin's curiosity and suspicions, and she begins investigating...

It's remarkable how easy Kenyon makes it for readers blithely to accept all this indistinguishable-from-magic tech running rampant in her tale. A lot of it has to do with the emphasis on character that gives us a stake in the action, as well as the way the story ends up thematically exploring the moral depths to which anyone can sink in the pursuit of personal gain. We're presented with a host of people willing to sacrifice literally everything and everybody, everywhere, just so they can have a few hundred years more in which to live. Ironically they're unaware of factions within the Entire that envy the Rose and disdain the extended lives the Entire accords its inhabitants, which too often lead to aimlessness and sloth. A shorter lifespan should prompt people to spend their lives more meaningfully, to cherish each day. No one ever realizes the value of the things they do have when they're devoting their energies to wanting what they cannot.

There is enough familiar here to keep the whole affair a completely accessible SF epic: the premise of a tyrannical alien race facing a rebellion led by misfits isn't exactly the newest item on the shelf. But staging it all in a manufactured alternative universe employing some of the latest hard-science speculation regarding "bubble" universes and the branes between them gives it nice fresh kick. And in her character development, Kenyon keeps the emotional connection strong without recourse to sentiment. There's no easy redemption here. Love may will out, but only at profound sacrifice. Deep wounds heal slowly, and leave vivid scars. And while sometimes a villain may see the error of his ways and make amends at the last, the sacrifice required to attain absolution is often brutally final.

There's one more book to go here. City does have a sense of closure to it, but there are many questions that still need answers, mysteries yet unsolved. To think that Kay Kenyon has more to offer, in light of how much she's given us in these stories already, is thrilling to contemplate. I really don't know where she'll go from here. And that's more than enough, not only to keep me on tenterhooks for the next volume, but to have you jumping into book one the first chance you get.

Followed by Prince of Storms.