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1610: A Sundial in a Grave
Mary Gentle
Victor Gollancz, 594 pages

1610: A Sundial in a Grave
Mary Gentle
Mary Gentle was born in Sussex in 1956. She left Hastings Grammar school at 16 and worked a variety of jobs such as a cinema projectionist, a warehouse clerk at a wholesale booksellers, a cook in an old folk's home, a valuation officer for the Inland Revenue, and a voluntary Meals-on-Wheels driver before finally becoming a self-employed writer in 1979.

In 1981, she began as a mature student at the University of Bournemouth where she took a BA in Combined Studies (Politics/English/Geography). Finding inspiration for her writing, Mary enrolled at Goldsmith's College to take an MA in Seventeenth Century Studies. For Ash, she took another Masters degree at Kings in 1995 in War Studies.

Mary Gentle finished her first novel at the tender age of 15. It wasn't published; the editor to whom she had sent it asked whether she had completed anything else. She sent them the first part of what would become A Hawk in Silver, published when she was 18. Her next novel, Golden Witchbreed came from an editorial slush pile for publication.

Mary Gentle now lives in Stevenage with her partner, Dean Wayland, a keen amateur historian and a teacher of medieval sword-fighting.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: White Crow
SF Site Review: Ash: A Secret History
SF Site Interview: Mary Gentle
SF Site Review: A Secret History and Carthage Ascendant
Review: A Secret History
Machiavelli, Marx And The Material Substratum: Creating Worlds for Fun and Profit by Mary Gentle
Hunchbacks, Sadists, And Shop-Soiled Heroes or "SF Author's Hunchback Fetish -- The True Story" by Mary Gentle
Gargoyles, Architecture and Devices or "Why write science fiction as if it wasn't?" by Mary Gentle

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

"It's about sex, and cruelty and forgiveness."
A fairly apt summary of what a Translator's Foreword purports to be the newly unearthed complete and unexpurgated memoirs of Valentin Raoul Rochefort, a French spymaster and assassin loyal to a fault to the Duc de Sully, the French prime minister for King Henri the Fourth. Henri's wife, Queen Marie de Medici, manipulates this loyalty to blackmail Rochefort to arrange the assassination of her husband and gain France's throne for herself. Rochefort's seemingly goes along with the Queen while planning to protect both his patron and his king, but good intentions backfire and regicide results nonetheless. Knowing his capture would implicate the Duc, Rochefort flees to England in search of both sanctuary and political connections to help reveal and revenge the Queen's treachery without imperiling the Duc. Instead, Rochefort is recruited in a plot to assassinate the British King James. Worse, he is forced into the company of his arch-foe Dariole, with whom he has a strangely erotic fixation.

In 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle employs a narrative technique similar to that used in her previous novel, Ash, presenting a supposedly "actual" historical manuscript that does not quite jibe with history as we know it to have been. In Ash, we don't really learn what's going on to account for historical discrepancies until relatively late in a hefty number of pages. In the comparatively shorter (only 594 pages!) 1610, the rationale of this alternative history is sooner apparent. One of the last living disciples of an esoteric mathematical school, astrologer Robert Fludd (a real historical personage) can foretell future probabilities. Fludd attempts to manipulate the future to avoid predictions of impending disasters, both immediate to Fludd's time (history as it really happened) and far (a cosmological disaster ahead of our time). Hence the need to murder King James. As with most political machinations, the end justifies whatever immoral means are required.

Fans will be familiar with Gentle's typical trademarks. To begin with, Rochefort's first name connotes Valentine, expert scholar and swordswoman whose adventures were recently anthologized in the White Crow omnibus. There's also Gentle's expert description of swordplay, including the horrific results of blade penetrating skin and bone that gets lost in sanitized Errol Flynn-type depictions. There's nothing gentle about a Mary Gentle fantasy: she depicts the shit and blood unflinchingly in a way you're not likely to encounter at your local Renaissance festival. Moreover, her characters are flawed (which is another way of saying they're thoroughly human), with dark tics twitching amidst even the noblest intentions. No majestic heroes or heroines boldly defeating evil in your standard fantasy quest, no simple issues painted in black and white of good versus the forces of darkness, just people struggling with their own internal dark forces to make the best out of situations over which they have no control.

1610: A Sundial in a Grave reportedly was inspired by an image Gentle had of a Japanese samurai washed up on a European beach, though it at first seems to have little to do with the European plot and characters. However, the character of Tanaka Saburo is pivotal in Gentle's consideration of the triangulation of love, duty and honorable conduct. This is an entertaining read, but an entertainment that ponders "right action," whether as creatures of fate, or creatures who make our fate. Gentle seems to imply, paradoxically, that the choice is ours.

It's also got some weird sex in it. And it's a love story more complex than happily ever after. Which makes this fantasy or alternate history or whatever you want to call it as realistic as anything that has actually happened.

Copyright © 2003 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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