J. Gregory Keyes keeps the momentum going in the third book of the Age of Unreason series, Empire of Unreason. The first two books were an excellent mix of historical and original characters all in a fantastic alternate history of alchemy and religion. This one, the third in the series, takes place ten years after A Calculus of Angels and is a bit less complete than the first two books. That’s not to say it’s missing anything, but it does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, which they didn’t.
Ten years after the battle with Russia’s Peter the Great in Venice, a lot has changed in the world. Ben Franklin is back in the Americas, the local alchemist in Charles Town as well as head of a secret group of scientists who are working to defeat the Malekim, sinister figures who might pass as demons or unruly angels to the non-scientific mind. They are trying to get mankind to eradicate itself, or at least stop meddling in scientific pursuits that they feel are their own domain. Meanwhile, Adrienne is in St. Petersburg where she was taken by Tsar Peter, but Peter is now missing and she is under threat from those who would take over for him. She’s also searching for her kidnapped son, who it turns out may be the evil that defeats them all. Only a Choctaw Indian named Red Shoes may be able to stop them. With the colonies in America under assault from a Russian backed English king, Franklin must endeavor to convince the disparate governments in North America to join together and fight back, though it may all be for naught.
Keyes continues his excellent characterization, with all of his main characters being fully developed and interesting to read about. Adrienne is a mother who is despairing about her son, especially once she learns who he may really be. She’s been allied to the Malekim at some point, but she realizes exactly what they are doing and that she must do her part to fight them, with the aid of some factions of the Malekim who aren’t necessarily after mankind’s destruction. She’s very narrow-minded, refusing to offer her lover much more than her bed and scorning most any other offers of friendship except for Crecy, her faithful companion and defender.
Franklin is once again Keyes’ masterpiece, as he is torn between the woman he loves but has neglected for the last ten years and the task he knows he has to do. He does his utmost to keep Lenka out of any danger, but she bristles under his protection, thinking he’s excluding her and putting her aside for his science. Keyes portrays Franklin as somebody who loves women but can’t seem to understand them. He’s not very knowledgeable about love and he feels trapped by his duty anyway. The reader feels for him after each conversation with his wife, as we see her drift further and further away from him.
The only misstep in characterization, and it is minor, is Red Shoes. While he was fairly interesting in A Calculus of Angels, he went downhill in this one. His character is the most mystic of all of them (though Adrienne is close), and Keyes doesn’t really ground him in the real world that well to make him appealing. He certainly tries, but doesn’t quite succeed. Late in the book, something happens that makes Red Shoes more of a tragic figure, but I found by this point that I didn’t really care that much. I wanted the action to get back to Franklin or Adrienne (or even Oglethorpe, who is a new character introduced in this book).
Still, that is really the only “bad” part of the book. Keyes’ prose is once again serviceable, though the dialogue is at times a bit questionable (most of these are in the Red Shoes sequences, so perhaps that’s why they were questionable compared to the rest). He hadn’t quite reached the level he’s now at in The Kingdoms of Throne & Bone series, but it is still quite good. There is a lot more action in this book, with war coming to the colonies, flying airships powered by the Malekim facing off against the fledgling government of the Americas, the colonists outnumbered and outgunned, but they are slowly becoming united. Oglethorpe is fighting a rearguard action while Franklin is trying to enlist allies, unaware that the mystic war is coming at them from the western part of the continent as well as the east. Keyes’ descriptions of the battles are extremely vivid and interesting to read about.
Empire of Unreason also avoids the faults of the previous books, which is definitely a good thing. He no longer (or at least, much less noticeably) begins chapters in the middle of the action and has the characters either tell or hear about what happened before. There are far fewer coincidences involved in this book as well with everything having a good reason for happening besides trying to get all of the characters together. Too bad that every time Keyes fixes a flaw, something else creeps in, but it is impossible for a book to be perfect.
All in all, Empire of Unreason is yet another winner for Keyes, and I can’t wait for the conclusion to see how it all wraps up.