I’ve dipped into Robert Silverberg’s work from time to time. In fact, I have stacks of his books. They’re well written, but somehow, with the exception of Lord Valentine’s Castle, they’ve never really drawn me back. Still, there’s no denying his writing skill, and as Silverberg’s back catalogs come out as e-books, I’ve bought several more.
At Winter’s End epitomizes the Silverberg experience for me. The writing is in many ways top notch. The concept is grand, the scale vast. He effortlessly introduces ancient, crumbling civilizations on a tremendous scale, while keeping the story at a very human level. It’s rare to see all this done so well.
Unfortunately, what he fails at is characterization. While he spreads the burden among a well-defined cast, most of the actors are stock characters without much attempt at customization. While their environment is fascinating, their motivations and actions tend toward the predictable. While Silverberg has a little fun rearranging modes of intimacy, this little band, eons in the future, has essentially the same secretes and jealousies that we all have. There’s a message in that, and perhaps an intentional one, but it nonetheless robs the story of the passion it could have had. All through this book, I wished Silverberg had spent on characters just a little of the care he used for setting. That’s often my feeling about his books, so perhaps by now I should just know what to expect. The thing is, the rest of the book is just so good that this (fairly major) flaw is frustrating.
Despite the obstacles of a cast with limited capacity, the book ends well – well enough that, frankly, I don’t expect to go on to the sequel. The setting was the interesting part, and I have only a tepid interest in the tribulations of the actors themselves.
All in all, excellent writing, but lackadaisical characterization that keeps the book from being the success it might have been.
PS In the Open Road Media edition, the true book is 375 pages long, followed by over hundred pages of excerpt from the sequel.