A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #35:-
Gollancz pb, 848pp, £9.99
reviewed by Peter Tennant
This doorstop volume brings together Gentle’s work from the late eighties and early nineties chronicling the adventures of Valentine (the White Crow of the title) and Baltazar Casaubon. She is a Scholar-Soldier, travelling the world at the behest of the Invisible College and tackling problems that are only amenable to her unique skills at hermetic science and magic, while he is a master architect in a reality where the profession has a thaumaturgical aspect, and their relationship is that of love/hate and mutual dependence. And all of that is a subject to change at a moment’s notice, so don’t come expecting too much in the way of consistency. Gentle simply invents worlds and plumps her characters down in them, with their identities the only thread that holds it all together. So, three stories, one of novella length, and three novels, all bound together between the same covers.
Stories first. ‘Beggars in Satin’ is the story in which they first meet, Casaubon’s architectural plans having gone awry and resulting in an ancient evil being freed, something which only Valentine can counter. ‘The Knot Garden’ is set some years later, when the two are an old married couple and have children, but it reprises pretty much the same plot, with yet another ancient evil, this time taking Valentine prisoner and forcing Casaubon to enter an alien dimension to bring about her rescue, the story developed in far more detail and with a much grander vision than previously, as if ‘Beggars’ was just a trial run, and adding an element of social conscience. ‘Black Motley’ is the only story not to feature the two main characters. It is set in a world where men are ruled by giant rats, with that world’s Gladstone and Disraeli competing for the favour of the rat equivalent of Queen Victoria, their plans dependent on a man with a perfect memory.
‘Black Motley’ is an excellent story in its own right, but included here I think because it sets the scene for the novel ‘Rats and Gargoyles’, which is perhaps Gentle’s finest achievement, at some 400pp taking up nearly half the book. This is an impressive feat of imagination, a book that is difficult and makes demands on the reader compared to which most generic fantasy pales, but rewarding him with invention, originality, beautiful writing and characterisation. In the city which is the story’s setting humans are slaves to the Rat Lords, but the rats themselves are ruled by the thirty six Deacons, godlike beings who reside in the Fane, a mighty cathedral at the heart of the city. Various factions, both rat and human, scheme to seize power, using alchemy and magic, unleashing a plague on the city, but they are all being played by one of the Deacons, an intellect with an unfathomable agenda of its own, one which may be inimical to all life. It’s up to Valentine and Casaubon to sort the mess out. This is a wonderful novel, full of hidden depths and hard earned treasures for the reader and I can’t recommend it enough.
A complete change of pace for ‘Left to His Own Devices’, which is set in some near future Britain, with Valentine and Casaubon at odds, as they so often are in these books, but joining forces to share technology stolen from the American military and offering to sell the secret of advanced information storage and total memory to the highest bidder. Naturally things go wrong and their test subject starts to remember a play by Kit Marlow that was never written, yet now exists in all the databases; a play written in Elizabethan English and that describes events happening currently, with Valentine and Casaubon themselves as characters. They have created an entity known as the Artificial Unconscious and in doing so ushered in a new age of information freedom, making the secretiveness of those in power a thing of the past. This novel echoes the themes and methods of cyberpunk, as Gentle herself points out in the introduction, but does so with an audacity that leaves most work from that sub genre standing still, combining Elizabethan drama with a stylistic nonchalance reminiscent of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books.
Finally ‘The Architecture of Desire’ finds our heroes in an alternate England where a bitter power struggle is being waged between the forces of Queen Carola and the Protector General Olivia. Casaubon is employed to help build a seemingly cursed temple while Valentine acts as a go-between for the warring factions, and though failing in their allotted tasks both learn valuable lessons about themselves. In particular Valentine’s infatuation with the woman Desire-of-the-Lord Guillaime results in the latter’s rape and death, causing the Scholar-Soldier to re-evaluate her life. This novel is on a smaller scale than its predecessors, almost a domestic fantasy in fact with the lack of any resolution beyond the merely personal, but the detailed depiction of a marginal otherworld is a delight and, as with all these books, Gentle’s use of heroes with feet of clay, people whose vulgarity and vulnerability she almost seems to revel in, make this a work that is refreshingly honest and forthright.
Taken en masse these books, with their anything goes attitude and indifference to consistency except when it comes to the quality of the writing, offer a complex and rewarding alternative to the serried ranks of genre fantasy, remarkable for the range of the writer and sheer intelligence used in their construction, demonstrating that bad things do not always come in threes.