I've struggled with the Eterna trilogy throughout but I believe that author Leanna Renee Hieber did too. I must add here that it is clearly now a trilogy, even though it's never advertised itself as such before and even if the fictional universe in which it takes place should ever be expanded by future work, because everything is neatly wrapped up and filed away as done. I just don't believe that Hieber saw that end when she wrote the first book.
'The Eterna Files' was ostensibly about the search for immortality, conducted initially by an American team put into motion by Mary Todd Lincoln after the assassination of her husband and then also by a British team tasked by Queen Victoria herself to close the apparent immortality gap. However, if that was the point, then that initial book failed. My appreciation for the author is the only reason why I'm not entirely convinced that that was just an elusive volume that simply got away from her.
'Eterna and Omega' effectively jettisoned the entire immortality angle and, around the halfway mark, managed to finally figure out where it needed to go, with both the American Eterna group and the British Omega group teaming up to face off against a glorious pulp villain by the name of Beauregard Moriel. The question which it left me was where the series, as it seemed to be at the time, was going to go. Well, now we have the answer.
At heart, what we have is a 19th century spiritual X-Men. Having wrapped up Moriel's shenanigans in London, the two teams, which are now one in everything but name, set sail for New York to clean up whatever residue is hanging around on that side of the pond. What they find is a heck of a lot more than they expected because there's another threat spawned from Moriel's that's going to keep them busy for, say, the three hundred or so pages we have left before everything wraps up.
From the outset, it seems clear at last that Hieber knows where she's going. This is more mature and much more patient than the previous two volumes. It begins with good scenes on the voyage over from England, very much the calm before the storm as Hieber sets her story in motion. Once we reach American shores, she's ready for us with a recognisable landmark in an enticingly unrecognisable form. It's the Statue of Liberty, but not quite what we expect, given that it hasn't yet been fully funded, so we only see Liberty's arm holding up an eerily sulphuric torch from the ground of Madison Square Park. And that's just the beginning.
Hieber doesn't use monuments like the Statue of Liberty merely for effect, as Hitchcock did so memorably in a number of his films (he used the Statue of Liberty in 'Saboteur', for example); she also uses them to highlight the amount of change going on in the late 19th century, something that's as notable for what is happening as what isn't. Our heroes are led by women and include an African American preacher, none of whom can accompany the white gentlemen into certain scenes because society wouldn't yet allow it.
We visit Central Park, expanded to its current size in 1873; take a trip to the White House and the Washington Monument; and examine Edison's electric net, beginning its gradual creep across the city, including a section along the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883. Hieber admits in her author's note that she fudged time a little, but I've rarely seen as valid a reason for that as here, because it firmly establishes the New York (and, indeed, the New World) of the day as a caterpillar about to transform into a butterfly.
Of course, that's only if our heroes are able to save that day, because it's being threatened by evil intent. We are left in the dark about the villain for quite some time, so I won't spoil that, but it's clear from the outset that he or she is spiritually talented and both willing and able to subvert anything and everything to achieve some hidden dark goal. This layer of evil floats over the city and subverts its very progress into something else entirely, through the use of some notably horrific images that are calmed down from but stand well alongside those in the prior volume.
As a final book, perhaps a surprisingly final book for the author, who may never have aimed at a trilogy, our heroes have to take care of this plot as they take care of much more personal goals too. Relationships are certainly a focus, not only through the abrupt wedding of Lavinia and Nate, which shows up out of the blue and is promptly leveraged for morale.
Of course, being the 19th century, all parties involved are conditioned to be stunted emotionally, leading to a great deal of what is described at one point as 'pining impassioned awkwardness'. Rose Everhart and Mr. Spire do fare a little better than Clara Templeton and Senator Rupert Bishop, her former guardian. That this latter relationship is not at all creepy is partly due to the fact that I've completely lost track of how old any of these characters are, other than to say that only one of them, not romantically attached, could reasonably be described as a spring chicken.
The downside here springs from my faulty memoryit's been two years since I reviewed Eterna and Omegaand Hieber's inability to fill in the gaps. While the plot plays out like this is a standalone volume, the previous book at least and probably the first volume as well are really needed to ground you in what's going on. I had a little trouble distinguishing between characters for a while, perhaps understandably as many of them comprise half of a mirror, the British group being set up as a vague copy of the American one. Over time, that eased and I found the rest of the book a joy far beyond the previous two. This is clearly the best book of the three and the first to really know what it wants to achieve, but it doesn't stand on its own.
One of The Eterna Solution's successes is its grounding in time. Great things were clearly afoot at this point in history and the work with which our heroes are tasked is really not only to combat the immediate threat but to ensure that a forward momentum unlike any other could continue onward. Another is the way that this is as much a visual experience as it is a book. I saw this unfold as I read it and it would be very easy to translate into a film. Play up the spiritual X-Men angle and it's even easier. Part of this is the fact that we know what all these monuments look like but another part of it is Hieber's setting of scene, which notably includes the sky above our characters as much as whatever lies beneath them; the initial scene in the mid-Atlantic and a late one in Washington, DC are prime examples. Edison's picture show too is almost tailor-made for the screen.
As a trilogy, this is deeply flawed. Its initial purpose was discarded partway into the second book and its new purpose didn't become clear until this third volume. The characters don't evolve much until they evolve a lot. There's little sense of leadership until this book, when Clara Templeton emerges as the unlikely but agreeable prime mover. Looking back, very little of this seems to play into a sense of coherence.
As a book, this is much better than what's gone before it. It's grounded well in time and it unfolds with visual style, but it also includes many details that are notable in their own right. I particularly appreciated the logical leap from Hieber's concepts of local warding to a pitch for each American state to adopt a state flower. I liked the comparisons between the electricity grid, the rail network and the age-old system of ley lines. I enjoyed a supporting character, Mosley, a great deal, not least because he's left with some mystery.
There are problems too, if mostly with regards to the villain, who's agreeably powerful but without much depth. Some scenes are more than a little convenient too. But, overall, I got a kick out of this one. I like gaslamp fantasy, generally; but the Eterna Files trilogy had to work hard to get me on its side. By the end, however, I was on board with how Hieber managed to wrap it up. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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