Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Kingsley Amis's alternate history is set in a world in which the Protestant Reformation was severely crippled in its infancy when Martin Luther became Pope Germanian I. The novel is set as the English a mourning the death of King Stephen III in 1976. Central to the funeral dirges is the nearly perfect voice of Hubert Anvil, a ten year old singer in the choir of St. George's Basilica, Coverley. The novel deals with events following the funeral as Hubert's mentors decide his voice is too precious to lose and he should become a castrati, the alteration of the title, in an attempt to preserve it.
The most realistic scenes of the novel are the after lights-out sequences in which hubert talks with the three other boys he shares a dorm room with. Although these boys are stereotypically drawn, they come to life as the most real characters in the book. Young boys who have no use for rules, but abide by them as best they can who are discovering there is a world around them. Although the boys are all friendly to each other, you can tell that they would not necessarily have become friend had circumstances not forced their friendship upon them.
One of the fixations of the novel, as may be expected from the main characters' ages and the fate about to befall Hubert, is sex. The reader is treated to a graphic description of the first sexual act Hubert witnesses as well as Hubert's older brother trying to describe intercourse to a ten-year-old. Hubert is at an age where children become interested in sex, and knowing he will never be able to experience it, or even desire it, Hubert attempts to learn as much about it as he can.
Kingsley also demonstrates a knowledge not only of the rules of the game of alternate history but of alternate history itself. There are frequent allusions to other alternate history novels, even naming Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, although the novel Amis describes is completely different from the novel Dick wrote.
Perhaps the weakest part of Amis's novel is the dialogue. All the characters speak in a very stilted manner. Although this adds to the feeling that their world is different from ours, it takes away from the characterizations. Everyone is so formal, the reader wonders whether there is any personality behind the words.
In the end, Amis briefly leaves his focal characters and turns his attention to the pope. The manner in which Amis makes this digression is confusing more than anything else. During the couple of pages this digression covers, the reader's sense of time wanders. At first the action seems to be taking place immediately after the preceding, but halfway through the scene it appears as if some years have past. Although not entirely out of place, Amis could have woven this part of the book into the whole in a smoother fashion.