Sean McMullen

Tor Books / 416 pages / June 1998


Time travel is nothing new in the world of science fiction and fantasy, but Sean McMullen has found a new twist. Suppose a person were to travel centuries forward at a time, in nothing more than their own body. Suppose the fragile human body, some chemicals, and simple ice were the only vessel. Don’t expect to find a generation-ship, elaborate machine, or black hole in The Centurion’s Empire; Vitellan Bavalius is making the long journey from 71 AD to the 21st century alone.

Vitellan is more than the average Roman youth. After surviving five days adrift in the frigid ocean, he becomes convinced that the cold saved his life. A good thing, too, because ice is where he will spend most of his life.

The Temporians are a group far above the common human. Through use of a secret elixir and the hard grip of ice, they survive the centuries, guiding Rome to empire status and, in general, keeping their eyes on the known world. An act of thievery and destruction leaves the survival of these Gods of Romulus very much in doubt.

Although Vitellan is content to sleep the centuries away, the protectors of his resting place cannot keep him safely on ice. With his skills as a centurion, Vitellan is needed when Rome hits its darkest hours. Several successful battles against overwhelming odds transform him from a mere man to Vitellan the Centurion, invincible legend. Unfortunately, famous victories and some poor judgement ensure him a string of enemies, some of whom follow him through time to exact their revenge.

McMullen succeeds admirably at portraying the various era and locations the Centurion finds himself in. A hefty amount of research went into the preparation of this novel. Through Romans, Danes, French revolutionaries and others, the sense of setting holds true. Even the dialects add to the authenticity. Oddly, it is when Vitellan enters the time closest to our own that the clarity cracks a bit.

The reader is only slightly less confused than the Centurion upon being thrust abruptly into the 21st century. (I haven’t ruled out the possibility that this is a clever way of obtaining the reader’s empathy for the protagonist’s confusion. If that’s the case, it works admirably.) So many plots and reversals surround Vitellan that it is difficult to keep up. Difficult, but not unrewarding.

The “return” of the Temporians turns out to be an unexpectedly tepid treat. Yes, it is only sensible that we would learn of their fate, but (except for the set-up for a sequel) the revelations fall strangely flat. Perhaps it is Vitellan’s humanity and the Temporians’ superhuman attitude that draw such a clear distinction between the time travellers. Whatever the reason, we quickly come to care about the survival of the Centurion, but feel little or no attachment to the Gods of Romulus. Then again, maybe it’s just their choice of designation…