1610 A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
Gollanz (UK) HCVR: ISBN 0575072504 PubDate: 01/01/04
Review by Iain Emsley
488 pgs. List price $ 18.99
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A new wave of British SF and Fantasy has erupted; one that is new and exciting, taking no prisoners in its mission to transform the current vista of imaginative fiction. Indeed the “New Weird” has brought its own unique visions, taking the old and the new in its stride.
Mary Gentle, whilst not hailed as one of these writers, has been writing challenging fiction for quite some time, taking in post-technological societal decline, Hermetic magic novels written in a similar style to an academic study, a loose trilogy of novels featuring a series of characters that may or may not the same people or just recurring images and an epic re-imagination of alternate history. In 1610, she ups the ante, drawing many of her previous obsessions and explorations together into a slithering, vulpine novel that intrigues as it enchants.
Robert Fludd, the physician and Magus, has calculated that 1610 is the nexus within the future whence major change can be affected by altering a few strands of foreseen history. Valentin Rochefort, a duellist, spy for the Duc de Sully, is forced to escape from Paris after the assassination of the King. He is helped out of France by Dariole, the one duellist that he cannot beat (who also has more than a few large secrets).
Fludd is aware that the Thirty Years War and English Civil War are due to erupt, turning European society inside out. He is trying to bring about a Hermetic Revolution, to bring magic into the centre of thought, but has not entirely counted on the quagmire of emotions and actions that the partnership of Rochefort and Dariole will bring to the equation or even the influence of a fellow magus. Elizabeth I has died and James I (VI of Scotland), a protestant who is anti-magic, has taken the throne. Whilst performing in a play, Fludd attempts to engineer a coup and place his brother, Henry, on the throne. Only Rochefort’s quick thinking prevents such a tragedy but this leads the way for Rochefort and James to build his power base in London.
In the Attitude fanzine, Gentle claimed that she wrote Rats and Gargoyles in the style of an academic textbook because she could and it interested her. It also allowed the reader to go through the essential reading list at the back, especially the work of Frances Yates, to find out more about the Hermetic Revolution. In 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, she returns to this in a less confrontational way, still adding in appendices and the margin notations that littered Ash, her last novel, creating and maintaining the illusion that we were reading a series of manuscripts. In each case the reader is invited to view the finished book as an artifice, as a construct, but also to be drawn into the idea that the author is not omniscient, that there are gaps which cannot be filled. One comes away with the question – how much of this may have been?
Gentle is an uncompromising writer and, as such, it is a blessing to read a novel that treats the reader as an adult. But be aware, dear reader, that in this bombast, she has the delicacy and intricacy of damascene silver as the plots and counterplots unfold in sometimes bewildering fashions. The pace never flags as she pushes the boundaries of her world to extremes whilst maintaining its internal consistency and logic.
1610: A Sundial in a Grave is a treasure and will repay re-reading at a later date. Once again she has taken alternate history and re-imagined it in such a unique fashion. A highlight of the year? I think so.