Saga of the Pliocene Exile

by Julian May

The Many-Coloured Land

Rating: ★★★★

After a somewhat slow and shaky start, this winds up being pretty entertaining. May is commendable for her worldbuilding, with the novel premise of the limited-function mostly-one-way time machine, combined with a surprise alien visitation to ancient earth, chillingly dangerous psychic powers, and a bunch of tie-ins to European mythology. There is a sense of careful attention being paid to the geology and paleobiology of the Pliocene, as well as the culture of the Tanu, which renders this a notch above a simple pulp time-travel adventure, and something more like a barely-plausible off-the-rails alt-history-cum-sociological-drama.

Parts of the book feel awkward because of the size of the cast. Eight viewpoint characters is a lot to handle, especially early on in the book when we go through a series of introductions before things can start moving and swapping more naturally. I found this aspect most awkward at the end, where it is highlighted that Part 3 of the book focuses on half of the cast, and that to read about what has happened to the others in this period, I should read the next volume in the series. I hadn't really felt the absence of the missing members, and would happily have read on, but the explicit teaser cheapens the experience a bit.

There are a few plot-holes, mostly centring (as often the case) on the time-machine itself. Most baffling, though, was the way the plot device was worked in so casually. Time travel cannot be so uninteresting that, one human professor having built a time machine in his basement, there is little effort put into replicating his results by anyone anywhere else. The fantastically advanced Galactic Milieu seems to regard it as nothing more than a convenient curiosity, and seems also to have an extremely lax attitude towards protecting its causality. Even if the exiles get wiped out as planned, those futuristic strains of fruits and vegetables (and modern fauna) could play genetic and ecological hell with Earth's biosphere. For all that is made of the policies applied to travellers, what real security measures did we see to prevent fertile women or operant psychics making their way through by force of arms, and potentially altering the entire timeline?

The Golden Torc

Rating: ★★★

I guess for consistency's sake I shall continue labeling this science-fiction, although really you could make an argument that it is more like a fantasy epic with a veneer of scifi. Some of the paleobiology seems to slip, and while there aren't quite dinosaurs wandering around, there are some distant relatives out of archaeological place. Most of the book is caught up in the internal intrigue and the action of the major power-players (Aiken, Felice, Elizabeth and the big Tanu figures), which feels quite appropriate and has enough reversals and twists that it's entertaining.

There is an appropriately climactic finish, handling both the character development and the broader picture quite well. The pageantry of the Grand Combat pairs well with Felice and Stein's crushing revenge. I wasn't overall that impressed by anything, but it's a decent enough read. I am somewhat puzzled as to how May will continue from here, though -- while only Claude has technically died of the original eight, several of the others seem to have played their part. I'm still interested enough to keep reading and find out.

The Nonborn King

Rating: ★★★

Acceptable mid-series fare, recovering competently enough from the climax of Felice's revenge. Our two new psychic stars face off against each other, and we see mythology being written in the form of the trickster's castle of glass and the raven-winged sorceress against whom entire armies falter. May has a talent for writing in archetypes and details that flicker with familiarity, and Golden Bough's namedrop makes clear it's no accidental rehash.

At the same time we see a new adult hiding on the other side of the world, someone who might truly rival Elizabeth. I don't really buy that the rebels would be so content to ignore the Tanu world, though -- even if a retreat was in order, the new travellers at least are a source of continued information on the departed future timeline, which they would value. And what about forging the Tanu into the mind Marc hoped to conquer? It feels like a hole, but it's not a deep one, and the drama and pageantry is certainly still charming enough that I approach the final volume with interest rather than resignation.

The Adversary

Rating: ★★★

Satisfactory ending to an overall satisfactory science-fictionish epic. I found it hard to buy Marc as a real Abaddon (perhaps the books set prior to the series lay groundwork for that?), and I never really got Elizabeth, but May managed to slot her mythic pieces together without too heavily straining the characters, and there was an amusingly literal big bang to end it all.

I liked this series. Most of this was the concept -- men and fey living as gods in ancient times, wrought from technology and psychic powers, all stirred into a primeval myth that tugged at vague memories and presented similarities with a bunch of cultural artefacts. But it was competently executed too, and I enjoyed not having to worry about the author getting lost in their own world.