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1610: A Sundial in a Grave

by Mary Gentle

(Gollancz, £12.99, 594 pages, trade paperback, published 20 November 2003.)

Coerced into engineering the assassination of King Henri IV, cover scanValentin Raoul Rochefort must either leave France or be silenced by his own assassination. While preparing to leave, he is intercepted by the androgynous Dariole, a young duellist of superlative ability who bears him a grudge. Rochefort reluctantly agrees to fight, but the skirmish in his stables develops into a roll in the hay of a rather different kind, and Dariole ends up following him out of the country. The two of them decide to lie low in England, but an ambitious astrologer has other ideas.

Dr Robert Fludd has mastered the heretic Giordano Bruno's technique of predicting the future mathematically, and has calculated that the only way to avert humanity's future destruction is to change the present, by killing King James and crowning his son Henry. And he knows just the man for the job.

1610 is presented as a new, uncut translation of a familiar historical memoir; her tongue in her cheek, Gentle proposes a film version of this swashbuckling romance starring Russell Crowe and Angelina Jolie. Personally, I found it a much more natural vehicle for Gerard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Beart. The film played itself out flawlessly inside my head, going on shortly afterwards to sweep the Oscars of my mind. Depardieu's still in there somewhere, bellowing in triumph and brandishing his statuette. I have a hat, and no amount of seasoning will leaven its bitter taste if 1610 doesn't win some sort of award this year.

Firstly, the characters, since this is a novel driven by its characters, and given to examining the failure of Fludd's dry formulae to take into account the real-world inner motivations of people. The central protagonists are Rochefort, Dariole and a shipwrecked samurai by the name of Tanaka Saburo, and all three are engaging on their own, fascinating in conjunction with each other. Of the supporting cast, I found Fludd and Robert Cecil, King James' chief advisor, particularly memorable. The remainder are all well depicted, and there's not a weak character in sight.

The book is a little long, reaching its first potential ending about two thirds of the way in and proceeding through others until its final crescendo. It never lulls, though, and doesn't outstay its welcome. Gentle demands constant emotional investment in her characters' story, and pays regular dividends. Needless to say, some liberties have been taken with historical detail, he said wryly; Fludd's interest in arcane matters and secret societies is well recorded, but the most arcane thing Giordano Bruno ever came up with was a technique for improving memory retention now considered commonplace. The poor guy was burned for more mundane heresies than that. It is, however, tempting to pencil in the guiding hand of some sort of visionary behind the upheavals of the early seventeenth century. It's also highly entertaining.

There's only one thing I'd take issue with, and that is that an attempt is made to broker Fludd's services to King James and to France's Queen Regent Marie de Medici. I couldn't quite believe that Medici, a good Catholic, and James, famously leery of anything he considered witchcraft, would so readily go along with this. But hey, it's a small point in an otherwise magnificent novel.

By now you've gathered that I like 1610 a lot. Go and read it, and find out why.

Review by John Toon.

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