Mary Gentle,
Rats and Gargoyles
(Viking/Roc, 1991)

I consider myself a strong reader but I'll admit, I had trouble -- lots of trouble -- following Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles. Set in a mythic realm at the "heart of the world," Gentle's book creates a time and a land ruled by the Hermetic magia of the Renaissance, forgotten Masonic rituals, and the presence of the thirty-six Decans, god-daemons preserved in living stone. In this world, most humans are kept captive under the rule of the eight-bodied Rat King, who serves the Decans.

In the city at the heart of the world, the White Crow suppresses and forgets her identity as a Soldier-Scholar of the Invisible College. Instead she waits and watches for signs of change in the city around her. Seeking help, she draws messages on the face of the moon with her own blood and a scrying mirror. The sign is noticed by Prince Lucas, newly arrived at the University of Crime. Lucas meets Zari, a young Katayan woman who is in the city as a King's Memory and will eventually serve as witness and living memory of everything that happens afterwards. Causabon, the Lord-Architect of the Invisible College, recruits the help of Lucas, Zari and the White Crow to try and quell the magic that threatens to ruin the entire city and its human population.

The plot of this novel is so tightly woven I found myself gritting my teeth in frustration. There were no chances for me to get to know the characters -- they were too busy running from one event to another, without sufficient clues as to their personal motivation. Besides, I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy novels that aren't so transparent that I immediately know what's going to happen, but Gentle's fantasy is one big tangled ball of yarn.

Gentle's writing style, too, doesn't help matters. Her prose is dense and strangely structured, and the tense shifts drove me crazy. There were passages that read fine for a few pages, and then I found myself floundering again. I'll admit that I skimmed over places frequently.

Mary Gentle should be applauded for the rich world of complexity and imagination she's created here and hissed for not being able to pull it off successfully. She's a highly acclaimed novelist; I just hope some of her other novels deserve the praise printed on the jacket of Rats and Gargoyles.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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