With the aid of Perception, the liberated AI now masterminding their plans to bring down Aaron the Long-Life, Hugo Maneker, Lycaste, and Huerepo are ready for war. They take to the skies with a mercenary army in the hopes of bringing down the scheming ancient before it can transfer from its decaying Caudipteryx body into something far more effective — Perception’s own remains. The Amaranthine have almost served their purpose for Aaron, and as he turns his gaze to more distant stars, he accelerates the slow-motion shattering of the Firmament. Ghaldezuel, the Lacaille knight turned traitor from Aaron’s service, allies with Cunctus and his gang of escaped Thrasm inmates to carve out a new future from the Lacaille-Vulgar conflict now the Vulgar can no longer rely on the patronage of the broken Amaranthine. Maril and his surviving crew, finding themselves on the fringes of the galaxy under the care of creatures with opaque intentions, seek a route back to known lands without raising the ire of their hosts or ending up back in the jaws of the Bult. And lost Sotiris continues to wander, in search of his sister, at the edges of remembrance, in a place beyond death…
So far I am a great fan of the Amaranthine Spectrum books, a demanding space opera series with deep, sprawling world-building. This newest entry is no disappointment. It picks up right where The Weight of the World left off and plunges us straight into high-intensity conflict, the sense of urgency compounded by rapidly switching POVs. I really enjoy seeing through the eyes of Perception, whose dry wit and occasional childlike caprice remind me of Banks’s loveable AI characters. We’re having a resurgence right now of stories about AI, from their perspective, perhaps reflective of our increasingly relevant fears over just what we might create in the next decade or two. I think Tom Toner really nails the voice of this kind of character, the extreme intelligence combined with the awkward attempts at understanding some of humanity’s more inscrutable qualities through deductive reasoning.
Although they are very different series in terms of topic and tone, I think fans of George R. R. Martin’s works will appreciate Toner’s similar ability to draw distinctive and compelling personalities out of such a vast cast. To some extent, the middle of The Tropic of Eternity does sideline Lycaste, Maneker, and Huerepo, who for me were the anchors of the first two books, but I found that unlike a lot of series where I end up resenting lengthy changes in POV, I was happy enough to spend a little while in a different part of the galaxy, a galaxy which is vastly different by the end of the book. After the rather breathless opening, the steadier pace of this middle section is not unappreciated either. Nonetheless, Lycaste and his companions are my favourites, and when we return to them, although it isn’t the last book in the series, several aspects of their story are brought full-circle in a rather touching way.
At the beginning of The Promise of the Child, the world of the Firmament and the Investiture seemed dizzyingly large, but The Tropic of Eternity suggests that the series will begin to draw the zoom out further, and that this now-familiar galaxy might be little more than a backwater to lands yet unknown, but tantalisingly glimpsed. These lands will take us to Aaron’s long game, it seems, and I’m excited by the setup for the next entry in this story.
If there’s one aspect of the book that didn’t land quite as solidly for me as the rest, it’s the story of Arabis’s kidnap and Jatropha, Eranthis and Pentas’s pursuit. I’m really interested in these characters as people, especially Jatropha with his intriguing background, so I was looking for a little more meat on the bone here, but it feels like there was a lot of buildup to something that was resolved in a rather pat way. I expect it was necessary to keep their thread in sync with the rest, but I would have preferred to see them work a little harder to reach the end result even if it had padded out an already meaty book.
If you enjoyed the first two, you’re in for a worthy successor here, and an angsty wait for the next volume. If you have yet to try this series, I strongly encourage you to check it out if you have the patience for sprawling stories with the dramatis personae to match, à la Erikson, Martin, and Hamilton, with the caveat that it will throw you in at the deep end, but richly reward your patience.