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Coalescent: Destiny's Children - Book 1
Stephen Baxter
Gollancz hardcover £17.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Coalescent shows signs of a new departure for Stephen Baxter, integrating the present day with his grasp of long time scales. It combines George Poole's contemporary investigation of a family mystery with a story that begins 1600 years ago with a young girl living in the last days of Roman Britain.
   After the death of Poole's father, he discovers he had a twin who was sent away to the Puissant Order of Mary Queen of Virgins. Seeking meaning in his life, Poole decides to quest after this lost sister who is wrapped up in the mysteries of church and family. This investigation and its consequences are told in the first person, using a matter of fact style threaded with portent. It is occasionally reminiscent of recent William Gibson, but Baxter's fascinations are still space shuttles and dark matter, and secondary characters that carry these elements rather than Poole himself. The most significant of these is Peter McLachlan, the character most SF fans are likely to identify with. His emails to Poole speak in a voice which Baxter's regular readers will instantly recognise, though these texts are at odds with the largely negative characterisation of McLachlan. He is almost a stock Trekkie in Poole's mind and yet he is the most likely source of revelation, of the underlying scientific explanation of what is going on.
   The story of Regina, attempting to survive the collapse of Roman Britain, covers a much greater span of time than Poole's story. This can be disconcerting. Her story alternates by chapter with the contemporary portion of the book but her character changes significantly in the years between chapters. Her travels and travails are, again, simply told, but Baxter can't help showing his research, explaining a great deal about the structure of empire or the arts of agriculture and metalworking. As these inform the plot and character of the protagonist as well as the reader, they don't interrupt the flow of the story too much. However, Baxter also invokes the 'Matter of Britain', which threatens to take the book off the rails.
   The themes of Coalescent will be more familiar to Baxter aficionados than the style and apparent subject matter may suggest. Regina is concerned with the maintenance of order amid chaos; McLachlan worries about the survival of humanity; the plot bounces off evolutionary pressures and revisits the ability of organisations to warp and be warped over long time spans. The final section of the books pushes outward, capping the plot and re-emphasising the SF aspects. Coalescent is also a sly novel, suggesting plot directions or building expectations only to undermine them, pushing off in unexpected directions or revisiting earlier ideas and placing a new emphasis on events. This principally occurs in the historical parts of the book and has the paradoxical effect of making Poole's first person narration feel more reliable than the third person storytelling. The approach keeps the reader from making assumptions too lightly but it also makes the story feel a little hazy, as if ghosts of other plots manifest beyond rewriting. While Coalescent stands alone as a novel, the subtitle indicates this is the first in a sequence; perhaps some of these subjects will be taken up in later books. This reviewer is looking forward to the next Baxter for the first time since the publication of Voyage.
Coalescent

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