Book Review: Inceptio by Alison Morton

Inceptio by Alison MortonInceptio, by Alison Morton

Review by Ian Shone

  • Paperback: 316 pages (eBook edition also available)
  • Publisher: SilverWood Books Ltd (1 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1781320624
  • ISBN-13: 978-1781320624

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With almost any example of alternate history, the reader is expected to take a leap of faith. The parallel world extrapolated from the divergence point can often be a bit of a stretch, and we are usually happy to suspend disbelief and turn a blind eye to logical and factual errors. After all, why should we let a sketchy premise get in the way of a good story?

Occasionally, however, the premise just asks too much from the reader. Any discussion of Inceptio would necessitate some attempt to explain the background to the story, so I will attempt to do so. When the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire (by this time well into its decline and within spitting distance of its fall), a group of senatorial families made their way north into Pannonia (in the novel) and founded an enclave dedicated to preserving paganism and ‘the old ways’. Where modern day Slovenia ought to be, there is now ‘Nova Roma’ instead, where people speak Classical Latin and worship the pantheon of old gods.

While the Empire and even the barbarians that destroyed it swiftly became overwhelmingly Christian, this pagan enclave survived while the Pelagians, Cathars and Bogomils were persecuted and snuffed out. The Goths and Huns left it well alone, and even being located directly in the path of almost all of the Crusades does not seem to have posed an existential threat. Fine—but on top of all this, Nova Roma has been a matriarchy almost since its inception, ruled by women for reasons that are never really satisfactorily explained. There is still more. This tiny, isolationist state has also become a kind of economic and technological superpower rather like Switzerland—where, incidentally, women didn’t get the vote until 1971.

Bluntly put, the world-building behind the story just doesn’t make any sense. For some writers, a nonsensical conceit is no obstacle (Brian Aldiss springs to mind) and a good story can still be told under these conditions. Unfortunately, Inceptio does not meet the considerable challenge it has set for itself. In its favour, the pace of the story is brisk and dynamic (if formulaic), and the first person narration camouflages some of the clumsier prose. However, it often reads more like ‘young adult’ or romantic fiction than the adventure story it essentially is. The characters are thin, and their arcs (particularly that of the protagonist Karen) are often difficult to take seriously.

The time-capsule approach to preserving elements of old Rome in Nova Roma is painfully superficial in parts, drawing attention to details like the use of solidi and gladii, and the use of the praenomen-nomen-cognomen naming system. Classical Latin also seems to have survived in its original form, where it has evolved into the Romance languages everywhere else. The whole thing feels quite slapdash. That said, this is the first novel of a trilogy, and as such must bear the weight of both its own plot and the unwieldy mythos which it must introduce. It thus suffers from having to keep too many plates spinning. The second and third instalments may well build on this and surpass this shaky beginning with a more coherent story, and Inceptio may itself benefit from added context.

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