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Cartomancy
Mary Gentle
Gollancz, 313 pages

Cartomancy
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: 1610: A Sundial in a Grave
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

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The title story for this collection of Mary Gentle's short fiction provides a framing device to connect otherwise unconnected tales. Perhaps the most famous use of this gimmick, at least in SF/F circles, is Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man in which various disparate tales are "told" on the moving tattoos of a man's flesh. Similarly, "Cartomancy" -- the invented term means "map magic" -- concerns a voluptuous, scantily leather clad halfling and her ugly orc companion who tempt the newly elected Pontiff of blue-skinned elves with a marvelous map that, with a drop of blood, depicts whatever is going on in that part of the world. The implication being, much like Bradbury's ink-mapped fellow, the stories that follow are displays on the map.

Well, okay, it does sort of work, particularly when you consider how viewing the map (i.e., reading the stories) pokes fun at the notion that the subject matter is corrupting, both in terms of what some literary prigs consider "bad taste" and what their social counterparts believe actually promotes bad behavior.

And there is a good deal of bad behavior here. One notable example is the portrayal of guilt-free child abuse in "Human Waste," which in an afterword Gentle notes was once described as "the most morally reprehensible biotech story the reviewer had ever read. Being me, I was immensely pleased by this. If it wasn't a disturbing story, I'd be worried."

Indeed, the conceit of the "corridor of maps" -- based on something that actually exists in the Vatican, though no doubt lacking as powerful an ability to evoke the scenery -- isn't nearly as interesting or essential to this compendium as the commentary that follows each story. In discussing "Cartomancy," for example, Gentle notes that the original inspiration was to see fantasy from the villain's point of view, an unconventional idea in the 90s, and that this eventually became the viewpoint of her novel: Grunts! A Fantasy with Attitude.

This kind of extra "insider" info adds to the pleasure of reading the stories. Oh, I know, the story should speak for itself. But it's always kind of cool to learn about the author's take on her own thinking. And in Gentle's case, that thought process is just as oddly warped (and I mean that in the highest complimentary sense) as her fiction.

Fans of Ash in particular will be interested in "The Logistics of Carthage," a sort of unintended (according to the author) prequel to the novel. Gentle says she had not intended to write the story that features two minor characters from Ash because, "When a 500,000-word epic is over and done, trust me, you don't want to see any more of it." (Robert Jordan please take note.) However, this time there were reasons to do so. And the results justify it, particularly its gritty recounting of life in a 15th century mercenary company that readers of Ash came to relish.

Similarly, the realism of battle, albeit in a fantasy situation, is particularly relevant to current events. Gentle notes that it is not entirely coincidental that "The Road to Jerusalem" was composed during the first Gulf War; indeed, the sacrifice of the good soldier is, unfortunately, all the more pertinent today.

Gentle's reputation is that she is not so, well, gentle, in describing the blood and guts of close combat; along with that goes, not coincidentally, a dark sense of humor. In "Orc's Drift," however, the jocularity is a bit strained. Indeed, the story is essentially just an extended bad joke, and a really bad one at that. While Gentle gets to share the blame with co-author Dean Wayland for this groaner, she at least puts it in perspective when she notes her co-author's astonishment, "We got paid for this?"

Cartomancy rounds up all the other usual Gentle suspects -- shaky love affairs ("Kitsune" and "The Tarot Dice," the characters from which Gentle says evolved to the protagonists for 1610: A Sundial in a Grave," though if she hadn't said so you'd never make the connection) and swordplay ("Ankuazi's Daughter" marks the first appearance of the Gentle "swordswoman" featured in most of her novels -- the heroine warrior who actually likes her line of work), the darker side of human nature ("Harvest of Wolves"), and alternate histories with "real" historical characters (Descartes in "What God Abandoned"). There are also some unexpected turns -- a sort of coming of age story in "The Pits Beneath the World"; a meditation on whether limits to scientific knowledge are justified, and at what costs, in "A Sun in the Attic"; a conceptually cinematic encounter between good and evil in "Cast a Long Shadow" that presents the conflict as a considerably more complex than the usual cinematically simplex black hats versus white hats; and, in a similar vein, whether the greater end justifies evil means in "A Shadow Under the Sea."

All of which does not add up to your run of the mill sword and sorcery, as anyone with a brief acquaintance with Gentle already knows.

You can even forgive "Orc's Drift."

Copyright © 2004 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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