I left 'The Eterna Files' by my desk after reading it for a few weeks before starting this review because I wanted to let it settle in my mind. Yet I'm still not precisely sure what I think about it.
I certainly enjoyed the concept, which is nothing less than the search for immortality, framed in a sort of cold war between the British Empire and a young American nation. It's sparked by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, when one woman promises his widow, Mary Todd, that she will do everything she can to find a cure for death so that no future first lady would ever have to endure her loss again. This unwitting promise brings into being the Secret Service, which has stranger responsibilities than we might realise today.
I enjoyed the leading ladies even more. Clara Templeton is the American lead, working for her guardian, Senator Rupert Bishop, and she's interesting for a lot more than just her spiritualist talents. Rose Everhart is her vague equivalent on the other side of the pond, working out of a secret room in the Houses of Parliament for Harold Spire, a policeman who wants to be doing something else entirely, though her talent is with codes and cyphers. Both women are substantially drawn and feel absolutely right even as they know that they're out of time for their Victorian setting. I appreciated how cleverly Leanna Renee Hieber renders them so much the same yet so different. It's also notable that Templeton's true trans-Atlantic counterpart is really Spire as much as it's Everhart.
I enjoyed the intrigue that surrounds them and their respective organisations, secret departments who meet in shadowy locations and do things that officially don't happen. In New York, the Eterna team is comprised of both scientists and mystics, their work merging magic with science in ways that even those at the heart of it don't fully realise, one reason why every one of them has mysteriously vanished, presumed dead. On the other side of the ocean in London, Queen Victoria herself diverts Spire away from the climax of his investigations into a cabal of child murderers within the gentry to head a British group tasked with finding out how far the Americans got with their Eterna compound and then getting further still.
I enjoyed the setting, Hieber at ease with her chosen period but willing to subvert it. She weaves her two anachronistic leading ladies into this setting well, making the London and New York of the late nineteenth century feel both distant and contemporary. There are side trips to Boston and Salem and down the Mississippi, but we never feel like we're out in the open, because the intrigue keeps us on edge and big cities are the perfect locations for that sort of paranoia.
I had a blast with the supporting characters too. Senator Bishop is a dark horse indeed, certain hints suggesting his future but nothing set in stone. His British equivalent, Lord Black, is more overtly characterful but just as obscure in what's really driving him. The Eterna team are interesting, some of whom get to interact with the story even from beyond the grave. The eccentrics Spire finds himself lumped with are still more fascinating: an oddball bunch who will individually and collectively own many moments to come, I'm sure. There's even a department even more secret than this secret one, so a clash is inevitably going to arrive sooner or later. So many possibilities.
Yet with these many successes, I found 'The Eterna Files' a oddly insubstantial piece, perhaps because everything is so fundamentally built on a house of cards that may well have collapsed before the story even begins.
The search for the cure for death is a time honoured one and nobody's found it yet, but while that search drives every act in this book, we never really expect anyone to find what they're looking for. What's more, the characters we follow aren't defined by that chase; instead they're merely tasked with being cogs in a bigger machine, unwilling ones in many instances. Those actually searching are either dead before the story begins, such as the Americans on the Eterna Project, or abstracted away in support, like Mary Todd or Queen Victoria, paying others to search for them. It's an odd MacGuffin whose players don't care about what they're supposed to care about.
What's more, there's no ending. Hieber cleverly sets us up to care about the players on both sides of this Immortality Gap, but never really puts them into play against each other, so we never have to choose which to support. There's no conclusion, no finale, nothing to wrap anything up. When we turn the final page, we wonder what the point of what we just read was, not because it was pointless but because it clearly isn't and we haven't yet been let in on what it is. That will surely come in further volumes, even if this doesn't advertise itself as the first part of a series.
For now, we're enticed by Hieber's characters and intrigued by their work, but we're oddly nonplussed about the subject that everything revolves around. In a way, 'The Eterna Files' is a game of chess where we're not quite sure who's white and who's black or what prize the players are really playing for; what's more, they're still jockeying for position at the end of the book and we're not far enough in to imagine either an endgame or when it might show up. While it's clear that this isn't a standalone volume, I really can't say if it's half of a two book story or a quarter of a four book series. All I know is that I don't want to wait throughout the gap between this and whatever is to follow because I want to know what it's about. ~~ Hal C F Astell