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Book cover art by Daniel Dos Santos.
Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Travel back into the Escheresque head of Chris Roberson, a vessel that fizzes with ideas like a bottle of Diet Coke spiked with Mentos. Here, time is at worst a minor inconvenience and at best a playground for the hyperactively creative. End of the Century is another metatemporal adventure that begins where reality ends, and ends...well, who can say there's an actual end to anything, in a universe where all times are now and one person's yesteryear can, with only minor difficulty, be that same person's distant future? It's more or less the same universe — again, in Roberson's tales, it's difficult to tell what may or may not be a hard and fast rule — of such previous novels as Here, There & Everywhere, Paragaea, and Set the Seas on Fire, with such recurring characters as time-skipping heroine Roxanne Bonaventure and her friend Sandford Blank taking on such personas as the story requires.

The story begins as a fantasy and ends as SF, though it's very much the kind of indistinguishable-from-magic SF that overlaps fantasy. It follows three characters in three time periods throughout the history of London, on a quest the goal of which remains shrouded in mystery until the very last.

American dropout Alice Fell, whose name alone crackles with Carrollian portent, arrives in London from Austin in 1999 with little more than the clothes on her back and the lingering effects of the brain injury that has caused her temporal lobe epilepsy, which in turn has caused the fantastical visions that haunt her, and that have brought her to her destination. In 1899, as Victoria's Diamond Jubilee has the city in the throes of excitement, Blank and Roxanne are called to investigate a horrific series of murders evidently performed with an unheard-of weapon that slices through victims like a guillotine blade through jello. And nearly a millennia and a half before all this, in the post-Roman Britannia of the 6th century CE, a young bumpkin named Galaad, haunted by visions following his own head injury, journeys to Londinium and the throne of Artor, in the hopes the High King's wisdom can interpret the images of the woman in white, who pleads for rescue from a glass tower on a remote tor.

Arthurian quest epic; Victorian murder mystery with traces of the arcane; modern urban fantasy-cum-spy thriller with teen rebel heroine; far-future speculative cosmological SF toying with quantum everything and the nature of time and space itself....for God's sake! Even Philip K. Dick might have stopped to take a Xanax before trying to cram all of that into a single book and get it to work. The crazy-ass thing about End of the Century is that Roberson, damn his eyes, does manage to make it work, rendering him perhaps SF's reigning lunatic genius. It's as if the man tried baking a cake from every flavor of mix and frosting on the shelves, and, when his party guests marveled at how, against all reason, it was actually pretty good, smugly replied, "Well, the secret is in the baking, you know." Yeah, eat me.

Because of this chaotic recipe, End of the Century flows less smoothly than some of Roberson's earlier time-skipping tales, principally Here, There & Everywhere. Specifically, the one criticism I'd focus on is that Alice, and maybe to a lesser extent Galaad, are the only characters to whom we develop a real emotional attachment. But each of the three plotlines is easy to follow. And as Roberson gradually begins tying these wildly disparate strands together, not only do earlier story quibbles begin to make better sense (such as the question of why Artor would casually choose to abandon his throne, Sarah Palin-style, based on a vision from an unlettered peasant) amid the big picture, but you can only sit back and delight in the inventiveness and discipline the process required. More fantasy writers should have the guts to take the risks Chris Roberson takes in End of the Century. But then, more of them would need talent they don't have. Could you imagine most of today's buzz-bin "urban fantasy" superstars pulling something like this off? Not in this lifetime. Travel to the End of the Century for a glimpse of what a fearless imagination at work really looks like.