Cartomancy - Mary Gentle

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Mary Gentle
ISBN: 0575075325 (Amazon link)

I'm an undemanding reader. All I want from a book is sex, violence (preferably sword fights), heremetical sciences esoterica, interesting heresies and great writing. Naturally, I'm a fan of Mary Gentle's work [1]. I think my enjoyment of her recent novels Ash: A Secret History and 1610: A Sundial in a Grave was probably inappropriate for a solitary activity like reading.

I was even more delighted to get my hands on this collection of Gentle's short fiction when I realised that it contained her long novella, The Logistics of Carthage, which acts as an optional prequel to Ash. Short fiction collections are a chance for an author to show off, to let us see them branching out and exploring themes they usually avoid in their novels, but as a reader, I admit that I also love re-visiting a familiar setting or character and seeing another aspect of a favourite world. The Logistics of Carthage does not disappoint, and at 80 pages, it's as satisfying as many plot threads in a full novel.

Another of the longer tales is a favourite of mine, The Road To Jerusalem. This is a fascinating alternate history court martial drama set in a world which, if you squint, feels not unlike the future from Ash. I first read it on the very cool Infinity Plus website, here.

As a paperback release, I personally think Cartomancy is worth these two novellas alone, but there are a dozen other stories in here, including Tarot Dice, which evolved into 1610, and a tongue-in-cheek episode from Grunts!, called Orc's Drift. How do I know this? Because each story has an interesting afterword from the author. I really liked this, it makes reading each story feel like a conversation with the author, "Did you like that? Here's what I was trying to do... Here's where that odd idea came from..."

All the remaining stories are good, but special mentions go to What God Abandoned and Human Waste. The first is a tale about everyday, C17th, gender-bending, shape-shifting, mercenary folks clashing with Descartes and the Invisible College, while the second is utterly shocking and best read cold. The author gleefully notes that she was "immensely pleased" to have one reviewer call it "the most morally reprehensible" biotech story they'd ever read. I agree, and I mean that in an admiring way.

The only thing I didn't like was the framing story for the collection, cf my ambivalence about the frame story in Ash. This story, Cartomancy, hit too many of the buttons from Grunts! for my liking, and while I too love the idea of transposing common Commercial Fantasy tropes into Papal palaces, this just didn't work for me at all.

I know a few reviewers of 1610 expressed a desire for Gentle to write something without sexual perversion, sword-fights, and women soldiers but I'll be honest, that'd take away much of what makes her work so unique. Recommended, but probably best enjoyed by those familiar with her novels.

[1] The exception is Grunts! I know many people find it hilarious, I'm not one of them. I'm not sure why. I 'got' all the jokes but failed to twitch even a single facial muscle. However, humour is a funny thing (pun intended), so don't let me put you off this one, it might work for you.

Posted: Sat - March 13, 2004 at 04:37 AM