I enjoyed 'The Eterna Files' but I had to fight with it. Reading back through my review of that first volume in a series, I found this telling line: “Yet with these many successes, I found 'The Eterna Files' an 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.”
That turns out to be rather prophetic because what appeared to be the central storyline in that book is sidelined here so far that it isn't even a subplot; it's almost entirely ignored and all but forgotten by the characters themselves.
You see, the most prominent word in that title and the only word that appears in both titles is 'Eterna', which ought to conjure up ideas about time and how to make it work for us. Sure enough, the Eterna team in New York was set up to conquer death, after a promise made to the widow of Abraham Lincoln. The 'Omega' that joins it in the second book's title is a team in London working towards the same goal. The British Empire doesn't need to be on the wrong side of an immortality gap, after all.
I wondered, at the end of 'The Eterna Files' how that quest for immortality would unfold and the answer is that it doesn't. The whole Britain vs the United States cold war concept evaporates into a spirit of spontaneous teamwork. This is partly prompted by attacks on both teams by the Master's Society, an organisation dedicated to evil that's run by a dark magician called Beauregard Moriel. He's supposedly dead but it turns out that he's merely languishing in a secret cell within the Royal Courts of Justice and bars aren't the sort of things that can contain him, given that he can conjure shadow creatures out of thin air to explode people like watermelons.
However, I get the impression that these teams would have found their way to join forces anyway, had Moriel never been born and the Master's Society never been founded. Hieber teases both us and her characters with links that aren't always explained. I do get how knowing your past lives would clearly define the people who will always be closest to you, but I'm not sure that we got an explanation for Lizzie Marlowe and the Marlowe Trust.
Maybe I was distracted at that point, because one frustration in Hieber's writing is how quickly and how often she changes scenes and perspectives. I found that I had to fight with the first half of this book as much as I fought with its predecessor. However, once the focus really starts to bite, which is during a glorious scene almost exactly halfway through the book, everything starts to flow much better and the need to fight gradually went away.
If this review sounds negative, I should explain that it is and it isn't, just as was my previous review. I believe that having to fight a book is a bad thing that should never happen, unless it's an economics textbook. However, there's a wonderful side to these novels that would have been entirely lost to me if I didn't persevere.
That scene at the middle of this volume is a fantastic example. It begins with an invitation, eloquently written and intriguingly delivered. A character bites at the hook and joins us at a tent set up in City Hall Park to deliver a circus-style performance that's half magical entertainment and half espionage. As it gets underway, however, a second tent is erected right next door, to conduct (pun not intended) an electricity demonstration. That descends into a truly horrific spectacle that leaves one of the characters dead. And out of it all moves the plot in a number of directions that all make perfect sense and are set up with neat choreography.
Sure, the very first page sets us up for darkness, with its use of 'dread power', 'Gothic eaves' and an 'unkindness of ravens', not to mention a 'black tide', a 'biblical plague' and a 'dead horde'. It unfolds in a graveyard during the witching hour and features a young lady, suffering a seizure, and a ghost who, in life, was her lover. It's pretty obvious that Hieber wants us to realise that there's darkness coming and it's here in the middle that it truly arrives. The Eterna books are usually described as 'gaslamp fantasy', which is appropriate, but there are points here where 'horror' is the only word to use.
So there's much good here. The lead characters, Clara Templeton and Rose Everhart, are both carefully and enticingly drawn. It's fair to say that this is to the detriment of the supporting cast but a number of those start to get similar treatment here. They have a variety of talents worthy of being collected into teams like these: clairvoyants, mesmerists and psychometrics, even a wizard in traditional garb. They're put to work on potions and wards, the localised magic they focus on in London and New York is an interesting idea.
And Moriel himself is a flamboyant shadow over the whole thing. He does come close to pulp caricature on a number of occasions, but he's just too much fun for me to care. He's the epitome of the young man who delves into the black arts and gets arrogant because he does so well. The man is very talented and he surely knows it, which generates a fantastic contempt for everyone who isn't him. This setting is perfect for that sort of character and, in a story where most of his enemies are notable for their mental and spiritual talents, it's great to see someone utterly visual. He would absolutely steal a film adaptation of this and he may well have stolen the book.
I'm still on board for the ride and, in fact, I'm much more at ease with the series now that it's firmly shifted in a certain direction. I write non-fiction books, but I have author friends who talk about how their characters sometimes drive their books in directions that they never planned. It wouldn't surprise me if that didn't happen to Hieber here and she fought with it for a while before letting the characters eventually tell the story that they wanted.
It even feels like she acknowledges it at various points within the narrative through the character of Clara Templeton. 'Eterna and everything around it,' she says at one point, 'has become something entirely different from what I thought.' A few pages later, she adds, 'An unraveling has begun.' These feel as overt as an acknowledgement by Clara of the anachronistic attitude of her boss: 'How rare his simple, unbiased acceptance of quality work regardless of gender was in this city, in this age, and among his peers.'
Whatever they call the genre, most writers working in some sort of fantasy in a Victorian setting tend to fall into the trap of imposing their own morality and code of ethics onto a period of history that did things very differently. The Victorian era was as much sweatshops and dead chimney sweeps as it was gentleman scientists and the Industrial Revolution and authors ignore the darker side of history at their peril. Hieber neatly avoids the trap by acknowledging her anachronistic choice of female leads and tolerant men in lines like the one I quoted above. She still makes life unfairly hard on her heroines and that's great to see.
While I wait for the third Eterna and Omega book (as it's really unfair to just call it the Eterna series), I'll happily jump to the side and check out some of Hieber's other novels. I have a few and I wonder both how similar and how different they are to these. ~~ Hal C F Astell