Science Fiction and Fantasy

dv350048 (Getty Digital Images)
By Bill Sheehan
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Renaissance magic, erotic obsession and historical adventure form the central strands of Mary Gentle's mammoth, wonderfully readable new novel, A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 (Perennial; paperback, $14.95). Gentle, best known for her epic Ash , has a gift for bringing the distant past to colorful, immediate life, and that gift is everywhere evident in her latest novel, which could -- and should -- appeal to a wide spectrum of readers.

A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 purports to be the restored, unexpurgated version of the scandalous memoirs of Valentin Rochefort, duelist, spy and special agent to the duc de Sully, the French minister of finance under King Henry of Navarre. The story begins when Marie de Medici blackmails Rochefort into arranging the assassination of her husband, the king. Helpless to resist, Rochefort sets in motion a half-hearted assassination attempt, which, though designed to fail, goes disastrously, inexplicably right, leaving King Henry dead and forcing Rochefort to run for his life. Accompanied by a shipwrecked samurai named Saburo and the androgynous young noble Dariole (who will affect his life in unprecedented ways), Rochefort sails for England, where he finds himself embroiled in a second regicidal conspiracy.

The architect of this new conspiracy is Robert Fludd, another actual historical figure, who has immersed himself in the magical theories of Giordano Bruno, a heretic burned at the stake in 1600. Using the arcane methods devised by Bruno, Fludd has gotten a look at the future, and it doesn't look good. In the long term, Fludd sees an apocalyptic end to the entire human species. In the short term, he sees the imminent outbreak of the Thirty Years' War, which will disrupt most of Europe, and of the English Civil War, which will end with the execution of Charles I and the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England. Determined to manipulate history toward more satisfactory ends, Fludd has calculated that change must begin with the death of the reigning monarch, James I. According to those same calculations, the ideal assassin is (naturally) Valentin Rochefort.

This plausibly developed scenario forms the backdrop for an ingenious narrative that combines Dumas and Sade in equal measure. Gentle writes convincingly of duels, magical encounters, palace intrigues and, most important, Rochefort's complex sexuality, which emerges gradually to become a central element of the novel. A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 is both first-rate speculative fiction from a very talented writer and a fascinating evocation of a turbulent, deeply significant moment in European history.

Literary Horrors

For more than forty years, Ramsey Campbell has been one of the premier horror writers of the English-speaking world. Since publishing his first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake , a nd Less Welcome Tenants , at the age of 17, he has written more than 20 novels and hundreds of short stories, a body of work notable both for its volume and its consistency. His latest novel, The Overnight (Tor, $24.95), is a creepy, sometimes blackly funny account of a haunted bookshop, and it shows Campbell at the top of his considerable form.

The bookshop in question is Texts, a lightly fictionalized version of the sort of "superstore" that now dominates the bookselling landscape. Texts is run by Woody Blake, a transplanted American determined to succeed in his first managerial position. It is located in the Fenny Meadows Retail Park outside Manchester, England, a muddy, fogbound area with a sinister history. Woody is one of a varied cast of viewpoint characters that Campbell deploys with quiet virtuosity. Others include Jill, a troubled single parent; Wilf, a recovered dyslexic finally able to indulge his love of books; and Madeleine and Ross, estranged former lovers now awkwardly positioned as co-workers.

From the beginning, Woody and his cohorts have their work cut out for them. In addition to the standard woes of the retail world -- poor sales, internecine squabbles, quarrelsome customers -- Texts suffers from a steady barrage of unexplained occurrences. Books move from one location to another, often becoming damaged in the process. Special orders disappear and reappear. Wilf suffers an inexplicable relapse of dyslexia. The store's computers appear not merely error prone but possessed. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, problems escalate from the merely mischievous to the lethal. When upper management schedules an onsite inspection of the struggling store, Woody organizes a desperate overnight effort to put the shop in order. During that very long night, the power fails, sinister forces converge, and a classic Campbellian nightmare ensues.

Campbell's brand of horror has always been suggestive rather than visceral. His books are filled with ordinary objects that acquire threatening, sometimes alien overtones and with looming presences that never -- or almost never -- come fully into view. The Overnight is filled with bleak grace notes that have a disorienting, cumulatively unsettling effect, such as this one:

"He hurries out of Texts, to discover that the fog has drifted closer. . . . Fat pale lights are wandering about in the murk -- headlamps, of course, however quiet the cars are. Overhead the spotlights are elongated toadstools blurred by luminous mould."

M. R. James, the quintessential author of antiquarian ghost stories (and a man who knew a thing or two about subtle supernatural horror), would have admired this book. The Overnight puts a distinctly contemporary spin on the traditional British tale of terror, successfully extending that tradition into the 21st century.

Industrial Magic

Ian R. MacLeod's latest novel of alternate history, The House of Storms (Ace, $24.95), is a stylish, independent sequel to the equally stylish The Light Ages , an account of a society in which magic and technology have become inextricably connected. In these books, MacLeod posits a world transformed by the discovery of "aether," a substance named after Plato's hypothetical fifth form of matter. It is, quite literally, a magical substance, and it ushers in an era of profound, irrevocable change.

"Aether persuaded corn to grow into bushel-sized heads on land which had furnished little but chaff.

"Aether made frozen axles turn. Aether bent the very fabric of the world. Aether, above all, was power. . . ."

The primary inheritors of this power are the various trade guilds, which dominate every facet of this transfigured, politically unstable world.

At the heart of The House of Storms is Alice Meynell, Greatgrandmistress of the powerful Telegraphers' Guild. Ambitious, beautiful and utterly ruthless, Alice is the wife of Greatgrandmaster Tom Meynell, an essentially decent man who learns too late just how far his wife will go to accomplish her aims. Tom and Alice have a single child, the consumptive, desperately ill Ralph, who is the heir apparent to the power -- and responsibilities -- of his parents' Guild.

The narrative turns on Alice's decision to move Ralph from London to the western coast of England, where several crucial events take place. First, Ralph recovers, fully and mysteriously, from his illness. Then he meets and falls in love with a servant girl from a local village. Finally, he develops a Darwinian theory he calls "Habitual Adaptation," which he is determined to pursue and validate. These and other elements form the basis for a sprawling saga of sexual awakening, Machiavellian maneuvering, scientific discovery, magical mutations and, ultimately, civil war. The result is an intelligent, gracefully written book whose central virtue is its compelling portrait of an impossible but thoroughly convincing world.

Time Wars

Readers with a taste for dense, high-concept science fiction will find much to admire in Neal Asher's Cowl (Tor; paperback, $14.95). A time-travel novel of Byzantine complexity, Cowl describes a genocidal war between two post-human cultures (the Heliothanes and Umbrathanes) that takes place on a continuum running from prehistoric times to the remote future. At the center of this war is the eponymous, superhuman creature named Cowl, who conducts his war against the future from an isolated citadel in the distant past. The fragmented narrative focuses primarily on two characters: Tack, a government operative programmed to be the ideal killer, and Polly, a teenage prostitute with a burgeoning drug problem. For complex reasons, these two find themselves forcibly removed from the familiar environs of the 22nd century and sent back through the millennia to the dawn of history and to their respective confrontations with Cowl.

Though his prose can be jargon-heavy and occasionally trite ("Fear closed its leaden claws around his guts"), Asher is an accomplished storyteller who works some interesting -- and rigorously developed -- variations on that old science fiction standby, time travel. In Cowl , he has fashioned an enjoyable, if overly complicated, narrative that offers a baroque portrait of a future society in which the human capacity for violence and destruction transcends the boundaries of time. ยท

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree," a critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, and is editor of the recent anthology "Night Visions 11."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company