The Promise of the Child (2015), an ambitious space opera that spans centuries and multiple planetary systems, begins with a prologue set in in fourteenth century Praha (Prague), where Princess Eliška, married to King John of Bohemia, meets with a man named Aaron to discuss his help with her son’s ill health. The story then jumps to AD 14,647 … but we will meet Aaron (“the Long-Life”) again.
In this distant future, humanity has spread to many worlds and “prismed” into many vastly different races, including giants (the Melius, who can change their skin color at will, and who inhabit Earth, now known as the Old World), a fairy-like race known as the Oxel scouts, and others in between. Overseeing all of the Firmament empire is a small, powerful group of humans known as the Amaranthine, who are virtually immortal due to a mysterious treatment they received long ago. The treatment isn’t perfect, though, and the Amaranthine tend to go insane after fifteen thousand years or so. This causes a problem when the oldest Amaranthine is the ruler of the Firmament, and various factions are intriguing and conspiring to gain control of the empire. But now there’s a disruptive development: an invention called the Shell that might upend the immortality treatment, and society in general.
The three primary characters and plots threads in The Promise of the Child:
- Lycaste, an extraordinarily handsome Melius who is painfully shy and childlike. He lives a quiet life, shunning most company except for a handful of neighbors, including Pentas, a girl for whom he has an unrequited passion. When a glib census-taker from a ruling province arrives and gains Pentas’ affection, a conflict with him will result in Lycaste fleeing through the Old World Provinces.
- Sotiris, one of the oldest Amaranthine, is deeply mourning the recent death of his sister Iro, but meets Lycaste and interests himself in Lycaste’s welfare. Aaron the Long-Life approaches Sotiris with an offer he finds difficult to refuse.
- Corphuso, of the Vulgar race, is the inventor of the Shell. He finds himself and his invention in the midst of a galactic tug-of-war. Ghaldezuel, a Lacaille knight, steals the Shell ― and Corphuso along with it. They embark on a perilous journey through the empire to deliver the Shell to Ghaldezuel’s employer.
There are some marvelously imaginative scenes and ideas at work in this far-future science fiction novel: the splintering of humanity into different races that fill the galaxy (there is no competition from aliens; Earth is the only planet that produced intelligent life). The discovery that a type of theropod dinosaur were once a space-faring race, when their spacecraft is found on one of the rings of Saturn. The color-changing Melius: Lycaste’s people default to a bright red skin tone, resulting in them being derogatively called “Cherries” by other Melius. Strips of silk cloth as currency. Hollowed-out planets (“Vaulted Lands”) that people live inside of, lit by an artificial star suspended in the middle. Tom Toner is endlessly inventive.
The background and plot of The Promise of the Child is highly complex and opaque. There are multiple moving parts and a whole host of characters to try to keep track of. I kept one finger in the glossary at the end of the book, which helpfully lists characters, breeds, places and general terms, but was still a little at sea for most of the book. It was difficult to get a grip on this universe. There were several different plot threads going at the same time, which will be confusing, possibly even frustrating, for all but the most attentive reader. It didn’t help that a large chunk of the novel was spent with the childish Lycaste, whose debilitating shyness makes him rather slow-witted, which made me rather impatient with him and his storyline … though he appears to be gradually maturing as he travels and gains more experience.
The Promise of the Child ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, with most of the key conflicts in the plot left for resolution in the next book in the series, The Weight of the World, or future books. This is not a book that will appeal to all readers, even if you like space opera, as I do. But if you’re a reader who thrives on complex, creative world building that requires close attention from the reader, and where the significance of various events is revealed only gradually, The Promise of the Child is worth checking out.