Warlords of Utopia
|ISBN||0 97259 596 1|
|Publisher||Mad Norwegian Press|
|Synopsis: All those parallel universes where Rome never fell are at war with all those parallel universes where Hitler won.|
A Review by John Seavey 16/4/05
Sometimes, when people review a book that they dislike, they say they "can't put their finger on exactly what's wrong with it." With Warlords of Utopia, it's quite the opposite; it's spectacular, amazing, stunning, but... looking at it, it's difficult to say exactly why at first. The narrator/protagonist isn't particularly likeable, no other characters are given much (if any) depth, the villains don't show up until half-way through the book... but yet, you read the whole thing absolutely stunned by how great it is.
I think it's mainly the scale that does it. It's a big, huge, magnificent, brilliant idea that trumps every single "what if?" novel out there, and it develops that idea from its origin to its apotheosis intelligently and with precision. Marcus Americanus Scriptor moves, in his narrative, from Point A (the discovery of a device that allows him to leave his version of Rome and travel to another, alternative universe where history flowed differently) to Point Z (a final battle between a thousand Romes and a thousand Berlins, orchestrated on the one side by him, on the other side by the Council of Hitlers) so elegantly that the unfolding of the idea is the most important thing in the book. Parkin doesn't concentrate on character development of his ancillary characters for exactly that reason; the events are far more interesting than the individuals could possibly ever be. Even Scriptor himself is only given character insofar as we're seeing the events of the war through his eyes!
And yes, the Nazis don't show up until the book is half-over... but that does nothing to dilute the expectation of their arrival. We know that Scriptor's first, tentative explorations will eventually lead him into conflict with the other great power mentioned on the back of the book, and it gives the first half of the novel an extra dramatic push. The second half needs no such help. Hitlers everywhere, Roman guerillas, battles that operate on a scale scarcely imaginable, atomic bombs, Hitler's son, giant Roman insect-tanks... the last half of the book goes by fueled by adrenaline as much as anything else. It all leads up to a conclusion that isn't 100 percent satisfying (perhaps 94.3 percent, if we judge these things scientifically), but which does tie the whole thing back into the framework of the FP cosmology, which is something I'd started to wonder about somewhere around page 100.
On the whole, exactly the must read everyone probably expects it to be.
Lance Of Utopia by Jamas Enright 13/4/06
Ah, this is how you write a book! Thank you Lance Parkin for not leaving a bad taste in my mouth as I leave the Faction Paradox range. As the back cover says "Rome never fell. Hitler won. Now they are at war." (Note: not War, just war.) I've never gone out of my way to read alternative history books, but Lance Parkin weaves a fantastic tale where Rome is still a functioning empire, and Germany wins World War II. And not just once. A whole slew of Earths are available where these two versions of history occur (and it says a lot for the author that he manages to keep coming up with variations and keeping them fresh, although I never knew history enough to know if these are real details or not).
(It's an interesting aspect of either our culture or the author that in none of the Nazi-Germanys is Nazism treated as a good thing. At best, it's all people know, but the light shone on it is always reflecting darkness and hatred. I'm not saying that Nazism is good, just that no-one ever admits that possibility in these stories.)
The build-up is slow but effective. Even in the opening pages, you can tell that this is a story well told, and you're willing to trust in the author even though the history of the world is something strange and unknown. From one Rome we build up to several, and then cross over to find a completely different history. And the best part about all of this is that the presence of the True Universe and Faction Paradox, etc., isn't really there. They are there, of course, but only play a minor role, stepping in to provide helpful plot points at times, but basically this book could easily stand outside the Faction Paradox range (which is one of its better points).
The main character is Marcus Americanius Scriptor, but his role is more observer than participant (although he is the one through which most of the events take place, he more allows them to take place while he is around rather than actively cause them). As such, while we read the life story of Marcus, we learn more about the what than the why, and he manages to be neither protagonist nor antagonist. That said, there are some nice moments when Marcus is confronted with his innate biasedness towards his Roman history, and can consider no other historical variation as acceptable (or they may just play that way given our own biases).
The worst aspect of this book is that it sets a high bar on the type of stories that can be told in the Faction Paradox universe, and on the quality of the writing. Lance Parkin is one of the better authors around, certainly, but this means that the next books are unlikely to meet this bar, let along exceed it. That said, as long as neither Lawrence Miles nor Philip Purser-Hallard write any more books, I might be able to accept that.
A Review by Finn Clark 3/8/10
I never got around to saying anything about Warlords of Utopia after I'd finished reading it. This is odd, because I review everything. It's now at least a year later. What's more, I'd heard that it was Lance's best book and it's not impossible that that claim might even be true. It certainly feels like a book that: (a) has a point, (b) isn't noticeably flawed and (c) seems to have taken him more than a fortnight to write, which puts it ahead of Beige Planet Mars, Cold Fusion, The Dying Days, Father Time, The Gallifrey Chronicles, Trading Futures and The Winning Side. I haven't read The Big Hunt, but I've heard nothing to convince me that that would jump ahead of the pack either.
Here, in contrast, we're talking about one of those books where Lance has pulled his finger out and gone the extra mile. For my money, the important Lance books are Just War (perhaps still my favourite of his), Father Time (shame about the final third) and The Infinity Doctors. Warlords of Utopia effortlessly joins that company and indeed fits in rather well, having Nazis like Just War and parallel universes like The Infinity Doctors. Now I come to think about it, the four books have quite a lot in common. They all have empires. Romans, Nazis, the Time Lords and the Klade, with all but one of those having a territory that spans not just history but entire multiverses. It even took me a moment to remember that Just War didn't count because I was getting muddled with Timewyrm: Exodus. You could almost call that a tetralogy. I'm perhaps stretching a bit with Father Time, but that book's Needle makes it a direct sequel to The Infinity Doctors. On first glance, the four appear to hang together as such as well as, for instance, Paul Cornell's "Four Seasons" NAs.
What's different with Warlords of Utopia is that it doesn't have the Doctor. This is obviously a facile statement, but it has structural consequences. The book's hero (um, protagonist) is Marcus Americanius Scriptor, the Roman whose actions bring about the war between parallel universes, on one side those where Rome never fell and on the other, those where Hitler won the Second World War. The Doctor wouldn't have done this. Maybe he'd have helped to start a war, but only from the libertarian anarchist perspective of wanting to bring down bad guys. He certainly wouldn't have had the objective of establishing a new pan-dimensional Roman Empire, which is what Marcus Americanius is proud to work towards. The Doctor has a clearly defined relationship with empires, especially militaristic ones. He knocks them down. Admittedly, this doesn't happen in Just War, The Infinity Doctors or (I think) Father Time, but Warlords of Utopia is a story that by its nature couldn't have been told within the Doctor Who heroic adventure framework.
Mind you, wasn't this originally going to be an 8DA until Justin Richards knocked it back? It came out in this form in 2004, not long after BBC Books had cut their own throats with an Alt Universe Arc. I'm going to spend all day wondering about that hypothetical McGann version now, aren't I?
The other thing this has in common with the rest of the Lance Tetralogy is scale. Just War was conceived as a pure historical and so is a small-scale story by Doctor Who standards, but it feels huge because it's taking the Nazis seriously. (Timewyrm: Exodus feels like kids playing in their back garden.) The Infinity Doctors is as big as it can possibly be along every possible dimension. Father Time has all that stuff millions of years in the future with wars, empires and the legacy of the Time Lords at the end of the universe, but on a more personal scale it spans an entire decade and a girl's growth to adulthood. (I'm not sure how Miranda managed to fit in all that growing between the early and late 1980s, but we'll let that pass.) Warlords of Utopia takes both of those things even further. Ironically, given the Doctor's argument with Omega, it takes us into the infinite multiverse and wages war on it. However, more personally, it also gives us a man's entire life. The book begins with Marcus Americanius setting the scene for his birth and progressing onwards from there, until the conclusion in Lord of the Rings style which has him as an old man saying "let Rome be my epitaph".
All these are reasons why the book is noteworthy. I admire what it's doing and I've now talked myself into wanting to reread the tetralogy. Unfortunately, I wasn't really wild about the book itself.
Oh, it's good. It's well written, the research is thoroughly convincing and it feels real, not a cartoonish runaround. I respect what it's doing. However, no matter how much you dress it up, it's a parallel universe story. I hate those with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, although I can be conned into enjoying them on occasion if you make everything personal enough. Inferno works because we want to see what happens to Jon Pertwee, Nick Courtney, et al. The temporal physics of how the Doctor travelled from one universe to the other might as well have been Tinkerbell's fairy dust for all the difference it makes. As far as I'm concerned, Warlords of Utopia falls victim to its own scale by having everything just a little too big for me to care. I didn't particularly like Marcus Americanius and I'm not even sure if I was meant to. I was interested by what Lance did with Marcus's wife Angela, which had one or two fun twists, but again I can't say I fell in love with her or anything. I wasn't even particularly bothered about what happened to the Romes or Nazi Germanies.
I like the way Lance had thought through everything. Stuff like the Council of Hitlers is great. Having set himself the challenge of telling this insanely huge story, he makes an admirable fist of pulling it off. [Note to self: rewrite to make that sound less dirty.] I believed that his war unfolded like that. The strategies made sense, the plot progression was intelligent and it really felt as if Lance was using the canvas he'd set himself. You can't deny that that's an attention-grabbing back cover blurb, but it's quite another matter to flesh that out into a novel and not come across like Terrance Dicks knocking out another one over the weekend. Lance even manages to do it in 180 pages, albeit of a larger size than BBC standard. Nine out of ten blockbuster SF authors would have stretched it out to 1,000,000 pages and at least two trilogies.
I nearly regretted our not returning to Doctor Who and the Iron Legion, but then I remembered that I hate it when Lance does things like that. So that's another plus point, then.
By the way, in case anyone was feeling argumentative about those other Parkin books I dismissed to the second division, Cold Fusion gets an honourable mention for being his Lawrence Miles book back in the Virgin days when Miles himself was merely the author of Christmas on a Rational Planet, but it's also an incoherent mess. The Dying Days is also a landmark book, but that's only because it's Virgin's McGann NA. It's fun, though. The Gallifrey Chronicles.... well, I believe it sold a lot.
As has been well reported, we can thank Philip Purser-Hallard for how this book turned out. Back when the early Faction Paradox books were being written, he managed to startle Lance and Lawrence into putting in the extra effort by doing such good work with ...Of the City of the Saved. Coming back to Warlords of Utopia, this is an interesting and well-thought-out book, that also curiously enough happens to be written by someone who shares some of my prejudices against alternate universes. You can tell this is the same man who wrote that argument in The Infinity Doctors. Personally, I regard this book as something of a heroic failure, with admirable effort and skill expended on something that never really gripped me. It would interest me when I picked it up, but it wouldn't be hard to put down either. However, that said, it's a miracle that I liked it even this much. I have this prejudice, you see...
What have the Nazis ever done for us? by Robert Smith? 18/6/18
The central premise is a laugh-out-loud punchline to a joke you have to be literate enough to construct for yourself: all the parallel universes where Rome never fell are at war with all the parallel universes where Hitler won. Its an amazing premise... but how on Earth could any book do justice to that? Fortunately, Warlords of Utopia is more than up to the task.
This is an astonishing novel, one that draws you into the world of a glorious Roman empire from the start, taking you through its customs, its history and culture with considerable style (and a fair smattering of jokes that only pay off if you know Latin). The journey through successive parallel universes is constructed with considerable aplomb until the action reaches Nazi Germany. At this point, the book stops being merely fascinating and instead becomes mesmerising as its heads towards its apotheosis.
It's told in the first person, so its lead character is the only one to speak of, but for the sheer detail and a plot that unfolds like an origami construction, it's unbeatable. Faction Paradox hardly appear, but so rich and involving is the rest of it that you almost don't notice. This is one of those rare novels that transcends its pop-lit origins and offers something glorious, something you'd give to your sceptical friends and family to prove just why you're a fan of this sort of thing in the first place. Outstanding.