I've always loved fantasy books that had a strong sense of history about them I blame it on being exposed to Tolkien and Asimov too early in life. Not many authors, however detailed their personal notes, can come close to that level of authenticity. In Rats and Gargoyles, Mary Gentle doesn't even try to match the two masters. She just blows past them with a cheery wave.
The hardcover version I picked up doesn't have particularly impressive artwork on the jacket a gargoyle growling, backlit by a reddish globe (perhaps intended to be the Midnight Sun?) but the inside has a handful of fascinating grayscale Hermetic-themed illustrations scattered throughout, with quotes underneath each one that make the reader pause and wonder if a history book might be a good thing to have to hand. This momentary hitch of "Did that really happen, or is she making it up?" is entirely intentional. In a 2001 interview on the Neither Fish Nor Fowl Web site, she says, "...I like that point where, just for a second, just for a moment, your confidence slips and you think, am I really reading a story? Did this actually happen?"
Well, I was certainly kept wondering, and not just from the artwork. The very first sentence sets the tone:
"In the raucous cathedral square the crowd prepared to hang a pig."
That immediately hooked me forward into this complex tale. Why would anyone hang a pig, for heaven's sake? The detail that follows is filled with Mary Gentle's trademark force; you can smell the crowded square, feel the rough rope around the pig's neck. Turns out the pig has been convicted of eating a child. The crowd possibly driven slightly mad by the overwhelming heat of the day cheers the executioner on.
From there, the reader is yanked into a world turned skillfully inside out: carpenters wear silk overalls, Rat-Lords rule over men, and the premier school in town is the University of Crime. Oh, and there are thirty-six daemons as the local gods, resident just up the road, with gargoyles for acolytes.
Welcome to the heart of the world.
The story started long before you got here. Plots have been swirling for years towards this moment. The humans resent the Rat-Lords ruling over them; the Rat-Lords, in turn, resent the gargoyles and god-daemons that command them; and the Thirty-Six have their own murky resentments....
By the end of the first chapter the political scene is established, filled with betrayal and bloodshed, secret agreements and hidden agendas, all perfectly matched with personalities. There's a rebellion underway by a coalition of Rats and humans who are trying to force the Thirty-Six to return to the heavens so that mortals can get on with the job of ruling the world. The initial meeting of the rebellion is betrayed by two humans, who aren't exactly thanked by the Thirty-Six for their intervention these are daemons we're talking about, after all. When the meeting is broken up, a handful of the rebels escape the destruction into unexplored underground passages that lead them ironically into something more powerful than their alliance would have come to by itself.
Brilliant character development drives this story; it's not so much plotted by the author as pushed into inevitable shape by the people involved. Consider Lucas, who starts us off as he observes the mad scene in the beginning. He's here to study at the University of Crime, but he's also a young prince used to having his own way. His original, idealistic intention to hide his background fades away when faced with the reality of being treated like a commoner. He becomes infatuated with the Scholar-Solider White Crow, almost to the point of worshipping her, quite possibly because although he outranks her, she's older, stronger, smarter and unimpressed by the attentions of a prince. Lucas has entered a world where his rank doesn't mean nearly as much as it does at home; with gods living down the road, what's a title from an outlying province worth? Not much, except in court. And so he winds up less involved in attending classes and more involved in politics.
There's a wide range of memorable characters in this story, all unique and very much "alive." But by far the most stunning, original character is Baltazar Casaubon. He reminds me of Ignatius Reilly of John Kennedy Toole's classic A Confederacy of Dunces, equipped with the dry wit and devious wisdom of a typical Robert Heinlein lead. The meeting of Casaubon's humor and Lucas' naive arrogance is marvelous but I won't spoil it by telling the punch line here.
Over a dozen significant characters are juggled past the reader in twice as many pages. The focus switches from Lucas to Candia, an instructor at the University of Crime; to Theodoret, the Bishop of the Trees; to Zar-bettu-zekigal, another student; and continues to bounce around throughout the book. Very few authors can pull off multiple main characters without confusing the reader. Mary Gentle focuses on over twelve characters while subtly keeping the main focus on Valentine and Casaubon. My only complaint is that towards the end of the book it does get a bit irritating when completely new characters are raised into abrupt prominence.
There are three other books involving Valentine (White Crow) and Casaubon: The Architecture of Desire, Left to His Own Devices, and just out this year is White Crow, which, so far as I can tell, has only been released in the UK. Be warned before picking them up: the world is not the same from one book to another. The author describes Architecture as "alternate history" and Devices as "cyberpunk" a far stretch from the sci-fi/fantasy of Rats. The unpredictable spins that Mary Gentle builds into all of her stories will keep me, at least, grabbing for her books for quite some time.
You might also like to read "Gargoyles, Architecture and Devices", an article by Mary Gentle on the Baroquon Web site.