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White Crow
Mary Gentle
Gollancz, 848 pages

White Crow
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: 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

White Crow is a compendium of three loosely interlinked novels (Rats and Gargoyles, Left to His Own Devices, and The Architecture of Desire), as well as three short stories ("Beggars in Satin," "The Knot Garden," and "Black Motley"). They feature, for the most part, expert swordswoman and magical healer Valentine along with her lover/husband, Lord-Architect Baltazar Casaubon. Their adventures take place in multiple universes -- a Renaissance-like steampunk realm in which humans subservient to a race of anthropomorphic rats are lorded over by a collective of thirty-six sphinx-like creatures, a near-future cybertech England and an 18th century London torn in a civil war between female-led Puritan and Monarchist factions -- sharing a framework in which magic works according to the principle of Hemeretic science, a 17th century heresy (though in the cyber version, the magic is cloaked in the bits and bytes of the Internet and the information culture).

If you are one of those people who tend to skip author introductions, don't. Mary Gentle's forward provides a context you might not otherwise have unless, of course, you also had a graduate degree in medieval studies and can recognize that the magic practiced within these pages is based on an actual codified system. Which is why Gentle maintains that the novel Rats and Gargoyles (which, along with the three antecedent short stories in the similar universe make up the bulk of this omnibus) isn't fantasy, but science fiction. "It just isn't the science you are probably used to. I was besotted with the early 17th century world view, especially that part of it called Hermetic science, which says that the world works on magical patterns and resonances, but it works predictably, scientifically." The classic definition of science fiction is that if certain scientific principles are removed from the story, then you no longer have a story. Well, while Rats and Gargoyles may operate under alternate "scientific" principles, you or I aren't going to know the difference. As Gentle herself admits when she says that, "there are jokes... that only three people in the world will understand and one of them is dead. This is not an apology." While this doesn't necessarily harm our enjoyment of the story, it does have some pitfalls. Gentle's insistence on getting the "science" right may be one of the reasons why the denouement drags out, with a puzzle being pieced together that isn't quite recognizable to those of us less informed.

Gentle doesn't seem to give a damn if the reader lacks the erudition to fully understand her setting. In fact, that's the thesis of her introductory manifesto: rather than present new intellectual challenges, science fiction (as well as fantasy, though she seems to be distancing herself from that genre despite exhibiting all the trappings) continually recycles the "same old, same old." Gentle quotes Michael Straczynski, of all people (I've never seen the Babylon 5 televisions series, but I've read his Babylon 5 fiction which is guilty of the very thing he protests here), "Cookie-cutter SF novels and worn-out fantasy clichés... pollute the field, diminish reader expectations, and degrade the taste and selectivity of the readership."

So how does Gentle upend the cliché cart? One is a realism even if set in fantastical situations. As Gentle describes it, " matters that I get it right: that a sword weighs this much, and cuts like that, even if it's being handled by six-foot-tall talking rat. That the logical consequences of there being five points of the compass in the city at the heart of the world, still all 90 degrees apart, are followed through... And it matters that alchemy works like Hermetic alchemy worked, and not like genre fantasy D&D plot-device magic."

Equally important to the anti-formula is that the main characters are not always likeable (even while some remain true to form, such as the anti-hero who makes a brave sacrifice for the sake of those he's harmed). In The Architecture of Desire, ("Desire" is the name of a character whose irresistible attraction leads to tragedy) for example, Valentine is guilty of a despicable act, which is oddly alleviated by her rescue of a professional mercenary who deserves to hang for his crimes. (Actually, while the novel's ambiguity reflects the oftimes contradictory motivations of human behavior, and that coming to grips with these contradictions neither explains nor excuses them, the seams in the narrative knitting here stretch a bit thin. While perhaps it is Gentle's point that we are unaware of our baser inclinations only until we are given the opportunity to act upon them, still, Valentine's transgression is strikingly out of character, so jarring that it does seem structurally clumsy, particularly from an author whose stated artistic goal is to "get it right.")

Baltazar Casaubon, on the other hand, is of Falstaffian proportions, a fleshy man of six foot five and questionable hygiene prone to seemingly buffoonish actions. Unlike Falstaff, Casaubon is no coward, though. As a Lord-Architect, he engineers physical structures in line with cosmic principles that, if not carefully followed, can have disastrous consequences. On the surface, the attraction between Casaubon and Valentine seems unlikely -- she a sometimes world-weary, yet always sexy woman capable of considerable athletic prowess, he a lumbering fleshy mass of ill-fitting clothing containing a pet rat, uneaten foodstuffs, and snot (indeed, one stylistic quick of Gentle's that quickly becomes tiresome is how often she feels the need to note that Causabon picks or wipes his nose on his sleeve). The attraction, of course, is intellectual, of two minds of like inclinations, despite the disparate fleshy coverings. While Valentine may be an outgrowth of the Joanna Russ female hero (and Gentle states outright that Russ is an inspiration for her alternate world riffs using the same characters), Causabon is surely a satire of the Beowulf/Conan/Aragorn/John Carter archetype typical of epic fantasy. Here's a hero whose brains count more than brawn.

Another diversion from series fantasy (even though that isn't what Gentle is calling it) is that the sequels aren't sequential. The short stories "Beggars in Satin" and "The Knot Garden" do serve as prequel to Rats and Gargoyles by introducing the origins of the relationship between Valentine and Casaubon. Though they don't appear in "Black Motley" at all, the story shares the setting of the novel, with a few inconsistencies, such as that the group of ruling rats linked at their tails are male in "Black Motley," but female in Rats and Gargoyles. While this material takes up the bulk of the omnibus, the two shorter novels are set in different realities, and while the characters have the same names and more or less the same personalities, certain details are different. Moreover, there is no attempt to explain how or why the characters come to exist in these widely different universes, or what connection there may be among them. And that is, because, simply, there is no connection.

"The fact that Valentine and Casuabon shift universes, handedness, and number of children is [a] useful technique to keep the reader alert," Gentle explains. Alert to what, I'm not quite certain. Why, for example, is it important to note that there really was an Invisible College -- the ill-defined collective of magicians and warriors Valentine and Casuabon belong to -- or that she feels she has accurately replicated the physical feel of a Puritan London, but include inconsistencies not only among the narratives, but sometimes within? For example, in Left to His Own Devices, Valentine is said at some points to have worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, other times for the Confederate Department of Defense. Assuming this isn't editorial sloppiness, what is the point of alluding to two very different historical outcomes if it is not to make the reader question the reality the characters inhabit (and by implication, the reader's reality) in a novel that ponders the ontology of information. Similarly, in Rats and Gargoyles and "Black Motley," a key figure is the Kings Memory, someone who is trained to remember the details of a contract because, for some reason, a written contract is unreliable. Is this some sort of oblique joke about the unreliability of novelistic narrative? Then there's the odd sequencing in which we go from some Renaissance era with advanced machines to a modern England oversaturated by information technology and then back to a historical alternate-Cromwellian London in which Issac Newton and William Harvey play bit support roles. It's not even laid out in chronological order, about which Gentle herself says, "I am not responsible for the order in which these people live their lives. Normal service will be resumed when you close the book." Is Gentle complaining about an editorial decision? Or is she again poking fun at the conventions of the fantasy publishing machine in which reading in a certain order matters, and whetting the appetite for yet another installment keeps the coffers full. (Though I do think you need to read Rats and Gargoyles first to really understand, or at least have a context for, the other novels.)

Maybe Gentle was exposed to too many Lit Crit courses during her academic career; but the meta-fictional gimmicks never get in the way of intriguing tales and situations you won't find in run-of-the-mill science fiction, or fantasy, or just plain fiction. And that, I suppose, is really Gentle's main point, the only one that really matters.

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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