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Clash of (Multiverse) Empires – A Review of M.R. Carey’s Pandominion Duology

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

The Pandominion duology, written by British author M.R. Carey (who is probably best known for The Girl with All the Gifts), consists of Infinity Gate (published in 2023) and Echo of Worlds (published in June 2024). It’s a science fiction epic that includes three (and a few more) things I really, really like:

1) A complex multiverse where travel between universes is possible.

2) An (initially) unidentified and seemingly omniscient narrator whose true identity is only revealed later in the story.

And,

3) A harrowing, edge-of-your-seat, cartoonishly zany and fierce chase scene involving an enhanced cyber soldier in a battle suit, and a humanoid rabbit girl with the impossibly improbable name Topaz Tourmaline FiveHills, a rabbit of the Pandominion, from the city of Canoplex-Under-Heaven in Ut.

Bonus point: there is also a cute yet surprisingly powerful robot-buddy (or two.)

Fictional multiverses come in all sorts of shapes and guises, and Carey’s multiverse has its own defining features. One of these features is that every world we visit is a different iteration of Earth.

“All these places were the same place after all, under different guises and bearing different names. Earth. Jaarde. Eruth. Ut. Tellus. Gea. Taram. Terra. Jorden. Maa. Zeme. Bhumi. Dikiu. Lok.”

The reason for this Earth-centered focus is that while travel between universes is possible, the available technology only allows travel between the same location in different universes. Meaning: whatever spot you travel from in your universe, you will end up in that same exact spot in the universe you travel to. This restriction brings with it some interesting complications throughout the books, and I kind of like the idea that though the characters move far and wide through the multiverse, they are (almost) always interacting with essentially the same geographical place.

Every Earth in this multiverse has evolved along in its own path. Some of them are quite like our own Earth. In many others, evolution took a different course early on and Earth ended up ruled by the descendants of canids, felines, sloths, or even rabbits. And some Earths are entirely barren, victims of an unknown multiverse apocalypse called “the Scour.”

Another distinguishing feature of Carey’s multiverse is that a multitude of the worlds are ruled by an empire called the Pandominion, described as a “colossal assemblage of worlds wavering forever between performative democracy and naked tyranny.” And yes, Carey’s critique of colonialism, and his disdain for the delusions of superiority that all colonial power inherently requires, are a major part of the how this story unfolds.

There’s an interesting interview with Carey in Grimdark Magazine where he talks about the duology, and about how his views of Britain’s colonial past shaped the books. He also comments on his choice to use Lagos, Nigeria as the location for much of the story, saying “Infinity Gate is partly a story about empire, so it made sense to me to choose a setting that gives the lie to that nostalgic imperial myth.”

For a very long time, the Pandominion has been happily chugging along as an imperial juggernaut, using the almost limitless resources from millions of worlds to fuel its factories and feed its citizens; training and indoctrinating its cybernetically enhanced soldiers to maintain the rule of the empire, secure in the belief that they are the most powerful entity in the multiverse. And then they run into another empire: the machine hegemony, AKA the Ansurrection, an empire made up of machine beings united by a sort of hive-mind/artificial intelligence.

“The Ansurrection worlds, just like the Pandominion ones, were all of them variants of this one world, separated from each other only by the gossamer veils of the stochastic manifold, sometimes called the multiverse.”

This encounter leads to a devastating war that threatens the entire multiverse. It also leads to the formation of a resistance, as a small group of disparate, desperate selves try to stop the war and ensure the multiverse’s survival. (“Selves” is the term used in the books for sentient beings of any kind, whether they are biological, mechanical, or otherwise.)

While most of the duology takes place on Earths other than our own, Carey kicks off the story in a near-future version of our own Earth where a Nigerian physicist named Hadiz Tambuwal not only discovers the existence of the multiverse, but also invents a device that makes it possible to travel between universes. This might seem like world-altering tech that would make her next in line for a Nobel Prize, but unfortunately for Tambuwal, she is living and working on an Earth that has been ravaged by climate disasters and conflict. In short, her Earth is dying, the university in Lagos where she works is wholly abandoned, and there is no one around to celebrate her achievement. Her only companion is Rupshe, an artificial intelligence residing within the university’s computer system.

Tambuwal’s experiments attract the unfortunate attention of the Pandominion’s military and bureaucracy, setting off a chain of events that crash-bang-smashes through the two books, derailing all sorts of Pandominion plans and profoundly affecting the multiverse all the way to the grand finale in Echo of Worlds.

Carey’s duology has a grand and ambitious scope and delivers thought-provoking perspectives on, and explorations of, big themes like the way colonialism shapes and disfigures societies and citizens, how difficult it can be for one intelligent species to recognize the intelligence of another, radically different, intelligent species; and what happens when two empires who thought themselves masters of all universes clash head on.

In addition, the Pandominion duology contains some heavy-duty scientific content that, at times, verges on info-dumping. While I felt the weight of these lengthy scientific explanations, especially at the beginning of Infinity Gate, Carey makes the science pay off later in the narrative. And besides, if you can’t put a bunch of heavy-duty science into a science fiction epic, then where the heck can you put it?

What makes the books really pop for me, though, is the motley crew of characters that get caught up in this clash of empires, eventually forming a that mini-resistance working to stop the war between the Ansurrection and the Pandominion. In addition to Tambuwal (who is blunt and unsentimental in a way I thoroughly appreciated) and the artificial intelligence Rupshe who both originate on our own Earth, that motley crew includes:

– Essien Nkanika, a young Nigerian man from a universe almost identical to our own who, early on, tries to scam Tambuwal and ends up paying a hefty price for that error

– Moon, a terrifically brutal and sweary cat-woman-warrior

– Dulcie, a cute robot with a complicated past

and

– Topaz Tourmaline FiveHills, AKA my darling rabbit-girl Paz, who can be naïve and vulnerable and also (literally) kick ass (you do not want a human-sized rabbit kicking you in the solar plexus…)

Together, this crew banter and argue like all good found families, they carry out some spectacular multiverse heists, and go looking for the enigmatic third power in the multiverse, a sentient moss (?) called the Mother Mass.

Another member of this mini-resistance group, though he doesn’t exactly join willingly, is a Pandominion administrator, duty watchmaster Orso Vemmet (“his closest pre-sentient ancestors were hedgehogs and moonrats”), who ends up playing a big part in the endgame.

(By the way, the fact that so many of the characters in this multiverse are animal-based gives the entire story a pretty trippy vibe. Sloths and dogs running an empire? I’m into it.)

Through Vemmet, Carey gives us a peek inside the day-to-day operations of the Pandominion’s vast bureaucracy, where the work is often guided not by ideology or even some grand evil schemes, but by petty rivalries, careerism, and corruption. This part of the story reminded me forcefully of the excellent 2022 Star Wars TV-series Andor, as it reveals both the awful weaknesses and terrifying strengths built into the imperial system. A system where quite ordinary, even mediocre, individuals are both willing and able to cause terrible suffering, death, and injustice, all in a day’s work.

All these characters go through significant changes over the course of the story—physically, mentally, and emotionally—both because of what they do, and because of what is done to them, but it’s the transformation of Paz and Essien that stuck with me the most. Paz is the moral center of the story, and she is instantly likeable, from the moment we first meet her as a young student on Ut, through all the trauma and tragedy that befall her, until the bitter end. Her changes, while profound, are an extreme version of growing up, as she essentially becomes a stronger and more experienced version of herself while her spirit remains mostly unchanged. Essien, who grows up dirt poor on the streets of a parallel Lagos and later becomes a cybernetically enhanced Pandominion soldier, is very much her opposite when we first meet him. He is much harder to like, especially since he betrays Tambuwal for his own petty greed almost right off the bat, but boy oh boy does he ever pay for his mistakes, and in Echo of Worlds, a guilt-ridden Essien becomes the other emotional center of the story in addition to Paz. He changes in ways that are more fractured and complex than Paz, and there is a scene late in the books where he brushes up against his own painful past that had me sobbing as I read it.

Carey’s multiverse might be vast and complex, but the sprawling story feels surprisingly lean and trim in the telling, and it’s brought to a hard-won but satisfying conclusion that finally reveals the identity of that mysterious, omniscient narrator who gives us this description of themselves in the first chapter of Infinity Gate:

“I meant no harm to anyone. I would even argue that what I did was for the best. Nobody had ever attempted before to perform surgery on entire universes. For such a task, you need a knife of immense, all but incalculable size.

Me. I am that knife.”

Infinity Gate and Echo of Worlds are available now from Orbit Books.