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Black Opera by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2012, 680 p.

The book starts atmospherically with a prologue scene set around the eruption of the Indonesian volcano of Tambora in 1815, which provided the loudest sound in recorded history – an explosion so great that 1200 miles away it was thought to be artillery and threw so much ash into the atmosphere it resulted in “the Year without a Summer” in 1816. Perhaps the first sign that this is not a straight historical novel is that a party of “The Prince’s Men” is on hand – on an ocean-going steamboat.

The novel proper focuses on Conrad Scalese, a rationalist atheist who writes libretti for a living. His latest work has had a triumphant premier but lightning has struck the theatre where it was performed. The local (Neapolitan) Inquisition interprets this as a sign of God’s anger at the opera’s blasphemy and arrives to take him in for questioning. He is saved by the local police chief who conveys him to a meeting with the King of the Two Sicilies who assesses Conrad’s suitability to write the libretto for an opera which the King desires in order to counter a Black Opera which The Prince’s Men plan to perform in a few months’ time. The Black Opera is the secular equivalent of a black mass. Not only will it cause the eruption of Vesuvius, Stromboli, Ætna and other volcanic regions in between, thus devastating the Two Sicilies, it will summon up Il Principe, the God whom the creator God left in charge of Earth. Other intrusions of the supernatural into the narrative have Conrad’s father appearing as a ghost and people known as the Returned Dead – not zombies but fully functioning humans except for lacking the need to breathe.

The premise – that volcanic eruptions can be triggered by singing – is of course unremittingly silly but must be accepted for purposes of story. Invocation of gods or devils by incantation is time-honoured in fiction so their summoning by singing is not too much further of a stretch (but still too much for me.)

Gentle’s characterisation and plotting are excellent, though. The web of relationships around Conrad and the betrayals inherent in the set-up – the Prince’s Men are even more dangerous than the Cammora of Naples or the società onorata of Sicily – are finely detailed. Gentle’s knowledge of, or research on, opera seems solidly based to a non-buff. The collaborative nature of a first production, not only composer and librettist but also the singers, was well depicted.

As befits an altered history of the nineteenth century, the victor of Austerlitz and Borodino, the Emperor of the North, also makes two passing appearances.

Conrad’s sweet-bitterness towards his former love is pithily expressed, “It’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man,” and the perennial complaint, “why a sister and a sweetheart will invariably combine their forces to persecute the relevant male,” is aired.

Despite any negativity above Black Opera is never less than readable; even the supernatural stuff.

Pedants’ complaints:- “Sung” count: 1. Livestock is a singular noun. Plus we had a who’s for whose, lay for lie, a beaus for beaux and one, “I can’t explained.” Despite her Italian setting and liberal use of Italian phrases, Gentle employed librettos and palazzos as plurals rather than the Italian libretti/palazzi. (Both forms are, though, acceptable in English.)

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