1610: A Sundial in a Grave
(Gollancz, £12.99, 594 pages, trade paperback, published 20 November
Coerced into engineering the assassination of King Henri IV, Valentin
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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