Mary Gentle,
1610: A Sundial in a Grave
(Victor Gollancz, 2003)

Mary Gentle is widely known for novels of historical fantasy, although 1610: A Sundial in a Grave barely meets the definition of fantasy or science fiction; the only fantastic element is the reality of mathematical precognition. Gentle is also known as a meticulous researcher, and she shows that again in this book. 1610 is a wonderful book that just starts a little too slow.

It is a year of change. Edward Fludd has perfected the mathematics of telling the future. However, he doesn't like what he sees and is determined to change it. This is the year where that change becomes possible. Valentin Rochefort, a duelist, down-on-his-luck aristocrat and servant to the French spymaster Sully, is having his own problems. He is supposed to set up the assassination of his monarch, Henry IV, but it's designed to be a fake. Too bad for him that it succeeds. Disgraced and forced to run, he encounters his 16-year-old nemesis, Dariole, who revels in humiliating him by beating him at swordplay. Dariole ends up running with him, and they find themselves trapped in Fludd's web.

Fludd intends to use Rochefort in an assassination of his own, one that will change the course of the future. With the addition of a shipwrecked Japanese samurai, agendas clash, honor systems conflict and secrets are revealed. The story goes all over the world, from France to England to Portugal and Japan before returning for an intriguing finish. There's even time for a little romance as well.

1610 is written as if it were a computer-generated reconstructed translation of a fire-damaged manuscript by Rochefort. This allows the "translator" to include other documents as well, so each part (the book is separated into five) begins with something other than his memoirs. Sometimes it's a translator's note or a partially reconstructed entry from Saburo to his Japanese liege-lord. These give us a little bit more background information that Rochefort wouldn't necessarily be privy to, enabling the reader to have a more well-rounded story. It's an effective way to write, and Rochefort makes a wonderful narrator. He's witty and not afraid to admit his mistakes (and there are many). The only thing that's not completely realistic about this is the lack of white-washing; there's no effort to make Rochefort look good, which is what would probably happen with anybody else's memoirs. Rochefort's honesty is refreshing, however.

With the book being told in first person, it would have been very easy to make the other characters wooden. Thankfully, Gentle avoids this, with both Dariole and Saburo being superb. The relationship between Dariole and Rochefort is riveting, especially when Dariole's secret is revealed and Rochefort has to adjust accordingly. Saburo is fascinating because Japan is a fairly unknown entity at this point in history. The culture clash between Saburo and Rochefort, and even Dariole to an extent makes a good subplot to the main action. It gets even more interesting when Saburo has to choose between duty to his leader and duty to the man who saved his life. Gentle handles all of these differing cultures admirably, showing again how detailed her research is.

Unfortunately, the beginning of this book is horribly slow. I almost gave up on it after 60 pages, especially after a bizarre sexual encounter took place. I persevered, though, and discovered a rich, yet clearly adult, novel with wonderful prose and fascinating characters. Once Rochefort and Dariole leave Paris, the book takes off at a frenetic yet leisurely pace. I know that doesn't appear to make sense, but the story seems to be moving even when Gentle is pausing for breath. 1610 is a book that's hard to put down, even during these breaks. When there's no action, there are still plenty of ideas being put forward or beautiful character interaction to keep the reader entertained.

As long as a bit of adult content doesn't bother you, 1610 is a wonderful book.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 15 May 2004