1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle

BCA, 2003, 603 p.

 1610: A Sundial in a Grave cover

Valentin Raoul Rochefort is a duellist, even though it is illegal, and a spy for the Duc de Sully, who in turn is right hand man to Henri IV of France. In order to protect his patron he is suborned by Henri’s wife Marie de Medici into procuring the King’s assassination. He means to fail by hiring an incompetent to carry out the killing but by chance the assassination succeeds and Rochefort is forced to flee. In attempting to make his escape he encounters a M. Dariole who had previously humiliated him in a duel. As a result of a further defeat (and a sexual humiliation) Rochefort and Dariole end up travelling together. The sparring between Rochefort and Dariole is of the verbal as well as the fencing kind. On a beach in Normandy they rescue a shipwrecked man, Tanaka Saburo, the only survivor of an embassy from the Shogun of the Japans to King James I (of England) and VI of Scotland. Saburo immediately sees M Dariole is in fact a woman. She is Arcadie Fleurimonde Henriette de Montargis de la Roncière, runaway from a premature marriage and much more at home as a sword wielder.

In London the three come under the influence of Robert Fludd – a historical figure here a practitioner of the Nolan Formulae learned from Giordano Bruno who can therefore calculate the future and who wishes (in order to create conditions so that humankind might prevent the impact of a destructive comet in 500 years’ time) to replace King James with his son Henry, Prince of Wales, and asks Rochefort to devise a plan to kill the King. The plan having been deliberately sabotaged with the help of another of Bruno’s disciples and spymaster Robert Cecil many further adventures ensue (including a trip to the Japans) before events are set on a more familiar keel with Prince Henry’s fatal swim in the Thames. We also meet in these pages Armand Jean du Plessis, to whose career our heroes give a boost.

We are presented all this as a found manuscript of Rochefort’s memoirs, partly burned and reconstructed via computer image-enhancement. It is perhaps too convenient that other accounts found in the same box, an extract from the cipher journal of Robert Fludd, two excerpts from Saburo’s report to the Shogun, an account of Roncière’s rape when captive by Fludd, fragments of a play by poet Aemilia Lanier, Roncière’s reflections from old age, so precisely fill in the gaps in Rochefort’s, though the “translator’s note” at the beginning states they are included for that purpose.

For all its glorying in the details of everyday life in the early 17th century (the black mud of Paris, the unwashed state of westerners, the fiddly business of clothing,) the minutiae of sword fighting – and the concomitant outpourings of blood and death – the toying with matters of history, the brushes with hermeticism, in the end this is a love story, peopled with eminently believable characters, replete with human passions, flaws, desires and misunderstandings.

Aside: I find it interesting that since 2000 Gentle has taken to setting her stories in the past (or alternative pasts Ash: A Secret History, Black Opera.) Is there something about the future or the present that she finds inimical to sweeping storytelling?

Pedant’s corner:- de Vernyes’ companion (de Vernyes’s,) laying (lying; also lay for lie, multiple instances,) sunk (sank; ditto,) swum (swam,) “I am not used to be manhandled” (being,) one instance of “amn’t I?” “No woman neither.” (The no is already a negation so “no woman either,”) “ought else” (aught, several instances,) Neopolitan (Neapolitan – which appeared later,) swum (swam,) one instance of Fontainebleu (Fontainebleau occurs elsewhere,) “cowardice on his own behalf” (on his part makes more sense,) Louis Capet (this is usually used to denote Louis XVI after his dethronement in the French Revolution – nearly 200 years after the events of this novel – but since all later French Kings were descended from the first Capetian, known as Hugh Capet, I suppose it may have been a common epithet,) I thought Bedlam might have been another possible anachronism but it seems the word did enter everyday speech in Jacobean times as a synonym for chaos, wernt (went,) Prince of Wales’ (Prince of Wales’s,) “All men do not travel in groups, with firearms” (Not all men travel in groups.)

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