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Pavane: SF Masterworks 35 by Keith Roberts
(Millennium, £6.99, 279 pages, paperback; first published 1966, this edition 9 November 2000.)

The metaphor of the title is central to the book. The pavane is a slow and stately dance from the sixteenth century, every step cover scanprescribed, patterns moving and returning. This book is a collection of linked short stories referred to as 'measures', and the measures are ended by a brief coda. The metaphor also works at a level deeper than the superficial structure of the narrative.

A brief prologue provides an introduction to the dance. Elizabeth I is assassinated, and the country descends into bloody reprisals and insurrection. At this moment of weakness the admiral of the Spanish Armada decides to press his attack. England falls before the Spanish, and the Reformation is swept away. England becomes Angle-land, and the Catholic Church becomes paramount. For centuries, the Church holds a position of unchallenged dominance, casting its shadow over all aspects of life, social, economic and political. The Inquisition is still in operation, searching out and punishing heresy, but the most dramatic expression of the Church's power is its repression of most forms of technology. All this is conveyed in just two pages; then the prologue ends, the story leaps to 1968 (two years in the future when the book was written), a time when fractures are beginning to appear in the Church's hegemony.

The stories that follow are self-contained and loosely linked. There is no central character, but in a number of the stories a member of one of three generations of the Strange family steps forward to take their part in the dance. The first couple of stories illustrate how the church has not restricted all technology, but has sparingly allowed some to develop. In "The Lady Margaret" Jesse Strange takes over his father's business, transporting freight across the country in roadtrains pulled by steam engines. "The Signaller" develops one of the most enduring images of the book: a network of semaphore stations spans the country, allowing rapid communication. The network is controlled by the secretive Guild of Signallers, an organisation whose work supports the empire that stretches from Rome. Rome is suspicious of the Signallers, but reliant upon them. As a result, they have more freedom than any other group within this society. "The Signaller" tells the story of Rafe Bigland, from his childhood fascination with the semaphore stations, through his gruelling apprenticeship with the Signallers, and to a final test for him that reveals a mysterious, older facet of England that the Church has not yet been able to vanquish.

"The White Boat" is the beautifully told story of a girl in an isolated fishing village who becomes obsessed with the mysterious white boat she sees from time to time, a boat which for her symbolises the freedom which she does not possess. She is right, in more ways than she realises. The grip of the Church is beginning to be challenged, and a questioning of the established order begins to ripple through the stories as the book unfolds.

This culminates in the final story, "Corfe Gate", which sees the great-niece of Jesse Strange reluctantly driven to defying the Church in rebellion. In between the appearance of Jesse, and that of his great niece, a number of well-drawn characters bow in and out of the dance, all well portrayed by Roberts' economic and moving prose. There is a strong sense that the characters are playing a part in history which they may not have the power to alter. Some are more conscious of this than others. In "Corfe Gate" Lady Eleanor reflects: "It's like a ... dance somehow, a minuet or a pavane. Something stately and pointless, with all the steps set out. With a beginning, and an end."

It is a tribute to the quality of Roberts' writing that this world appears to have a strong internal consistency. It is a coherent and vivid vision, which almost convinces. Almost, but not quite. The continuing dominance of the Church across Europe for four hundred years, the slow pace - if not stagnation - of society, and the Church's control over technology seem somewhat overplayed. From the late mediaeval period onwards the Church never possessed the stability that Roberts portrays it as having across the next four hundred years, and it is a stretch to imagine that any such hegemony could have persisted for quite so long, in such a stable form.

So, judged as a novel of alternate history, Pavane has its flaws. This is not as important a criticism as it might sound as perhaps the book's greatest strength - and its biggest weakness - is that it is more than an alternate history novel. Indeed in many ways, it is not an alternate history at all.

Many such novels are hung off a fašade which is constructed to allow the playing of games of historical what-ifs. Roberts appears to have aimed for more than this, and when this succeeds it is impressive and moving. Unfortunately, the coda to the novel takes a stretch too far, too quickly, to undermining Pavane as an alternate history, and it is here that the book is at its weakest. The revelations in the coda appear tacked on, an afterthought which jars with the tone of the rest of the book. Intended to force a re-evaluation of all that has gone before it, the coda instead creaks as the deus descends ex machina. If the book had ended with the final measure rather than the coda, it would have been no less effective as a story and, for this reviewer at least, more emotionally satisfying.

Despite these flaws, Pavane is deserving of its place in the Masterworks series. The world that Roberts evokes is realised enough to make the reader agree to suspend disbelief for long enough to enjoy the lyrical, stately prose while the dancers of the pavane act out their steps in history.


Review by Iain Rowan.

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© Iain Rowan 27 October 2001