Keith Roberts,
(Ace, 1968;
Del Rey, 2001)

The time is the late 20th century. The place is England. Steam locomotives carry cargo across the British Isles while huge semaphore towers run by the Guild of Signallers send messages across the miles. The Catholic Church is the absolute power in the land as a result of Queen Elizabeth I's assassination and the victory of the Spanish Armada in the 1500s. Heretics and witches are harshly dealt with while ordinary people continue to eke out an existence under the church and the noble classes.

This would seem to be a society immune to change and evolution, but rebellion stirs even here.

Pavane is a puzzle-box of a novel. Only at the end will the reader realize how all the different events interconnect and lead to the story's denouement. The plot describes the opening up of a stratified hierarchal society, but each chapter depicts a separate episode. Some of these episodes are far removed from each other in time, but they combine to tell the story in a subtle way.

Keith Roberts's world-building is on show as he gives many pages to the technology that drives this largely anti-technological society. The first chapter explains the steam railways while the second describes the training of the Guild of Signallers. These chapters ease the reader into this new world, allowing the reader to understand the social undercurrents at work. Some readers will wish for a faster-paced narrative, but Pavane rewards patience. Only with the final major chapter does everything come together, an "Aha!" moment that is worth the slow build-up. An aptly-named coda shows the fallout from the previous events and provides a satisfying conclusion.

Pavane is a thoughtful novel that will make the reader ponder how cultures change, how history is rooted in small events that may not seem important and how a novelist can craft a convincing work that considers such topics. Lovers of high-quality literary speculative fiction will want to track this one down.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 19 June 2004

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