I just read the most sumptuous book. It was as rich and satisfying as a slab of red velvet cake.
The book: The Boat of a Million Years
The author: Poul Anderson
The review: There are only seven story plots. All of the millions of novels are just variations and combinations on those themes. This one is a reworking of the movie Highlander, which was released 2 years before this was published in 1989. I got a cheap 2004 Kindle re-release, while I was COVID-isolating. The immortals can be killed. It’s just that they heal quickly and totally. They survive and recover from, wounds that would slay a normal person.
It’s ‘like’ a time-travel novel, but the travel is all from past, to the future. Perhaps once per century, a person is born who does not age and die. Unlike the Off With Her Head movie story, this book is about survival. The author wants to show that, while these people are different from the rabble in one way, they are quite the same in others, and different from each other.
It is not at all like several other ‘ray-guns and space-ships’ books of this author’s that I have. He treads lightly, but shows the historical foolishness of religions, when viewed over hundreds, or thousands of years
The most common, though not universal, drive is to find others of their kind. A Turkish trader in post-Roman Britain spends parts of several decades finding an immortal Norse warrior. When he finally locates him, he offers him partnership in a safe venture and way of life that will guarantee them both great wealth and political power. The Viking turns him down, and walks away. Several years later, he hears that the berserker died in an epic battle.
It takes over a century for a Mesopotamian ship-fleet owner to locate another male. When he does, the outgoing extrovert is dismayed to find a reclusive milquetoast who is content to follow, and allow someone else to make decisions and take care of him.
Some of the men make the obvious search for females of their kind, for wives/companions, and to find if two immortals would produce immortal offspring. They don’t. After several more centuries, the pair locate an immortal woman in Rome. Pointing out the gender inequality, she has advanced from prostitute, to madam, to courtesan, where she creates great wealth through pillow-talk investments.
Even before computers, birth certificates or accurate census forms, it was not a good idea to remain in one location with one name, for more than a couple of decades, lest the superstitious populace grow suspicious. The trader suggests that they move back to Nineveh, or Tyre, and sells off his ships and cargoes, converting them to a more easily transported chest, full of gold and jewels. Her history made her distrust all men, so she betrays them. The two men escape with their lives, but lose the fortune which takes the one a century to recoup.
This is a psychological and sociological account. With no ‘action’ to spur the plot, there is no urgency to rush this deep and lengthy book along. The author has the time and opportunity to compose it like a story from the Golden Age of Literature, of a hundred or two-hundred years ago. It is rich, luxurious, and full-bodied.
The construction was intriguing and complex, occasionally non-linear. The history and geography were informative, well-researched, and wide-ranging. The words were substantive, and often archaic. There was hardly a page where I wasn’t poking the Kindle screen for a definition. Words and phrases like, limned, bedizened courtesan, uxorious, an austere magus, lineaments, indolent insolence and caparisoned, peered from almost every page. For a word-nerd like me, it was Nirvana.
Reading this book was like wearing a silk shirt and walking barefoot across a Persian carpet, while eating a filet mignon. It was rewarding and satisfying on several simultaneous levels. I was delighted with the social and personal insights that the mere-mortal author provided.