1610: A Sundial In A Grave - Mary Gentle

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

1610: A Sundial In A Grave
Mary Gentle
Gollancz Publishers
ISBN: 0575072504 (Amazon link)

1610 opens with the superb line, "It's about sex, and cruelty, and forgiveness." and then goes on to deliver on that promise. That line comes from the preface by the 'translator', as this novel opens with the conceit that it is a new translation of a classic novel, possibly historically based, by the author. Gentle purports to be talking about Dumas Pere's ghostwriter Auguste Maquet's Nobless D'Epee, better known as The Sons of Sword And Hazard [1]. This work is just as popular as The Three Musketeers, and just as familiar from countless film versions; Gentle reveals she wasn't fond of the DiCaprio version of Noblesse D'Epee, but is looking forward to the Angelina Jolie/Russell Crowe treatment.

This new translation is presented as a computer aided reconstruction and fresh translation of the fire-damaged Memoirs of the historical figure thought to have inspired Maquet - Valentin [2] Raoul St Cyprian Anne-Marie Rochefort de Cosse Brissac. The bearer of this quite splendid name is a disinherited aristocrat, renowned duellist, and spy in the service of the Duc de Sully.

1610's preface is as fun and inventive, as enjoyable as many mid-list novels, but the body of the 1610 is immeasurably better, and plays the meta-narrative straight compared to her White Crow series or Ash (itself a series in the US), where many, me included, rather preferred the historical story to the framing plot. I was hoping Gentle would write a swashbuckler, but was a bit worried that the preface promising a tale comparable to Dumas or Sabatini was Gentle setting herself up for a fall, but now that I've finished it, I don't think she was being too presumptuous.

In previous work, like the White Crow novels, Gentle's own study of the 16th century, particularly the heremetic tradition, was a clear influence, so it's not surprising to see this blossom into practically a full blown historical with only marginal fantastic elements. The novel opens with a fragment from the journal of Robert Fludd, one of many historical characters Gentle has fun with. This English physician and occultist is one of the last of Giordana Bruno's pupils, trained in the use of mathematical arts which enable the accurate and detailed prediction of the future. Fludd has determined that 1610 is a pivotal moment in history, and as his very unwilling instrument of change he has chosen "the Spaniard" [3], Rochefort. Being able to determine all possible outcomes leaves him able to force Rochefort to his bidding exactly... but Rochefort has his own problems. Before Fludd even becomes known to him Rochefort is forced to plot the murder of his King, France's Henri IV, by his Queen, Marie de Medici, who has her own spy in the Duc de Sully's household. This dilemma is a typical Gentle theme, and recurs in a couple of guises in this novel - Rochefort's love and loyalty for his Duke leave him not option but to act against the Duke's interests to save the Duke's life.

Rochefort is a man of resource though, and is determined to botch the job - but it all goes horribly wrong, with a series of small coincidences leading to him having to flee as a regicide, not even able to clear his name with his Duke. Things become even more tangled when the fleeing Rochefort, duellist of repute remember, meets his nemesis in the stables. 'Monsieur Darriole' is an aristocratic young blade who has been tormenting Rochefort - the beardless youth not only publicly defeated Rochefort recently but embarrassed him with a pastry... Gentle has always been fascinated by blade play, and her real-life study of the field, in particular the rapier and parrying dagger, adds a viciously intense realism to the action.

To make matters worse, Rochefort finds his hate for Darriole compounded by his uncharacteristic and intense sexual attraction to the youth. Another of Gentle's trademarks is her unflinching portrayal of difficult and uncomfortable sexual relationships, and although the plot of 1610 revolves around a plot to change the fate of the world, the story is firmly centred on the sexual relationship between Rochefort and 'Darriole' and the exercise of dominance between them. This early stable duel is a powerful and uncomfortable scene, and absolutely central to the novel.

Naturally, the swashbuckling gods demand that Rochefort end up on the run with Darriole after their powerful stable showdown. Only when they rescue a shipwrecked 'demon' - Samurai Tanaka Saburo, sole survivor of the Ambassador of Tokugawa Hidetada's mission to the King of England - will Rochefort discover Darriole's secret, and be drawn into Fludd's grand conspiracy. All this in first hundred of six hundred splendid pages - 1610 is not quite as wrist-breakingly difficult to read in hardback as Ash was.

I've read a lot of good fantasies and historicals this year - Stephenson's Quicksilver, Simmon's Illium, MacLeod's The Light Ages, Eco's Baudelino, some Sabatini even- but 1610 is by far my favourite. The characters are memorable, the romantic plot heart-breaking, the writing gritty and crisp, the plot is clever and well-executed, with good pacing, and if they ever do make that Jolie/Crowe film version, there are enough set-pieces to let them sweep the board at the Oscars. In a similar vein, I would expect 1610 to draw Gentle a lot of praise, and wouldn't be surprised it won a few awards itself this year.

Highly recommended.

[1] Borrowed from Ben Jonson's The Alchemists.
[2] This is a Mary Gentle novel, of course the lead has to be called "Valentine"!
[3] Surely this isn't a subtle Crowe reference?

Posted: Wed - December 3, 2003 at 11:01 PM