Yuri Eden and Stef Kalinski step through an enigmatic Hatch that takes them to a far-flung planet in an alternative universe where human civilisation has followed a different line of history. Here they find the place over-run by Roman legionaries, and find that due to the discovery of Kernels human history has taken a completely different course, where three great powers are in a constant power struggle. Besides the Romans the other two significant powers are the (Asian) Xin and the (British) Brikanti. The Kernels are living entries that belch out enough power to make them awesome weapons of mass destruction, or they can be harnessed to send spaceships through interstellar space. The Romans are also compelled to use the Kernels to create new Hatches, though they do not know their meaning or purpose.
Since this is a follow-up to Proxima, readers of that will be familiar with the characters and their history, and will no doubt enjoy finding out the significance of the Hatches to the fate of the Universe and humanity. Ultima can be enjoyed even if you haven’t read Proxima, and in its 500 plus pages it describes in detail the progress of humanity in the future and in the alternative timeline. It also lovingly describes the technology of the Romans, this is particularly true of Baxter’s vivid description of the Roman ‘Malleus Jesu’ star vessel. It is a very crude vessel without computers or other hi-tech gadgets. Its many levels reflect a microcosm of Roman society, with the slaves huddled together in the lowest deck and the top dome of the ship is one giant bathhouse for the exclusive use of the most senior officers.
The central characters are strong women like Stef Kalinski, but they are in the shadow of the techno-porn of the description of the gadgets and history that dominates their lives. At times it’s like a mash-up of magazines like ‘How It Works’ and ‘All About History’ (other similarly themed magazines are available) and it takes time for the story to pick up any pace.
This is a perfect book for those who take the time to wallow and savour its detailed construction of alternative and future histories. I’d certainly take it with me if I had to take a four year three hundred and thirty-six day interstellar journey on-board the ‘Malleus Jesu’, which Stef and Yuri have to endure.