Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Sundial in a Grave: 1610

Sometimes the boundary between historical fiction and alternate history can be confused by the reader’s knowledge of historical facts. British history is not my strongest area, especially events in the 17th century regarding the conflicts between the Scottish Catholic royalty leading up to the Puritan Revolution. Thus the events in A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 were occasionally confusing as to whether they were primarily a fictionalization of actual events, or virtual history as created by author Mary Gentle. Fortunately, the novel’s categorization did not matter much, since it was enjoyable enough to be appreciated by readers enjoying either preference.

The basic premise of 1610 is the relationship between accomplished swordsman Rochefort and his teenaged nemesis Dariole. Early in the novel, Dariole seems obsessed with tormenting Rochefort as he repeatedly humiliates him in battle, at one point even forcing him into a homosexual act which has considerable ramifications for their subsequent relationship.

When Rochefort is forced into participating in the assassination of French King Henry of Navarre by his Medici wife Queen Marie, he flees France fearing she intends to have him killed for his knowledge of her own involvement. For reasons not quite explained, Dariole follows Rochefort to England where they become involved in an assassination attempt against King James Stuart.

At this point historical fiction, or alternate history, veers slightly into historical fantasy with the involvement of Dr. Robert Fludd, a necromancer who predicts future events quite uncannily through the use of arcane mathematics. Because of his predictions, Fludd conspires with James Stuart’s son Henry to kill the king and place Henry on the throne. Fludd’s predictions indicate that Rochefort will be the catalyst of James’ death, which is why he forces his involvement in a second assassination attempt, at one point kidnapping Dariole and threatening his life.

A series of memorable characters join the activities, including:

1. a Japanese samurai Saburu stranded in France when the ship on which he is serving as an aide to the Japanese ambassador to England flounders;

2. a former nun named Caterina who is the only other surviving necromancer whose predictions counterbalances Fludd’s and who believes that the assassination attempt on James Stuart must be foiled;

3. Robert Cecil, British secretary of state, who is the power behind the English throne;

4. James Stuart himself, whose appearance halfway through the novel signals the start of several hundred pages which are the most exciting and involving part of the novel.

For 1610's first several hundred pages, the relationship between Rochefort and Dariole seems forced, and not totally believable. Their constant verbal and physical sparring is more the actions of enemies who should separate rather than flee from France to England together. And Rochefort’s forced involvement in James Stuart’s assassination attempt seems more like manipulation by the author than flowing naturally from the novel’s previous events.

But when James Stuart arrives in the novel and the assassination attempt takes place, the entire level of the novel improves considerably. The masque in the cave, which is the setting for the assassination attempt, combines hilarity with drama. The subsequent flight of Rochefort, Dariole, Saburu and James Stuart is as gripping as it is entertaining, and Stuart’s return to power is exceedingly well-done.

And just when it seems as if the novel has reached its natural conclusion, it takes an abrupt left-turn. Robert Fludd escapes with the aid of an unlikely ally, and Rochefort and Dariole pursue him to Japan, where the rest of the novel takes place.

This last third is not as gripping as the middle portion, but it is saved by the relationship between Rochefort and Dariole which has grown from confusing in the first third to engaging in the last third, a good piece of development which I had not expected Gentle to pull off successfully.

Overall, A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 is a strong, enjoyable historical fantasy which should satisfy fans of both sides of the “fantasy” line. You will need a bit of patience in the first third, although not too much since events do move swiftly enough not to drag. It is all worthwhile for the middle portion which make the entire novel worthwhile.


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