Pavane (Panther science fiction) Paperback – 6 Aug 1970
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It is composed of a brief prologue, indicating the "branch point", followed by six "measures", novelette- or novella- length sections, beginning in 1968 and carrying the story forward several decades. Each measure is a self-contained story, but there are also links between them, particularly three stories which follow three generations of the Strange family. Finally, a Coda serves to cast the entire story in a somewhat different light, for one thing technically removing it from the strict "Alternate History" subgenre, and also commenting on the central conflicts of the story. The mood overall is rather dark, though flashes of brightness and joy light the pages. Roberts' Catholic dominated England, or Angle Land, is rather backwards technologically, as the Church carefully vets all scientific and technological knowledge, rejecting some advances and delaying others. Thus we have steam-driven road-based "trains", and semaphores instead of telephones, in the late 20th Century. Roberts' detailed descriptions of both sorts of old-fashioned technology are intriguing and rather romantic. At the same time it is clear that people are poorer and hungrier and fewer because of this retarded development -- but there is throughout an ambiguity about the depiction of this alternate present which is only intensified by Roberts' coda.
The book is set in a time of subdued unrest -- the heavy hand of the Church on Angle Land is clearly resented, and this resentment is seen to spread throughout society as the book unfolds. The opening story deals with Jesse Strange, a prosperous and hardworking businessman, who must work with and around Churchly taxations and technological restrictions. That's a side issue to his personal story, though, as he takes his train on the last trip before winter closes the roads one year, worried about outlaws, and finds a reason to visit a barmaid he has long fancied, and also encounters an old school friend. Both meetings have momentous results, and change his life profoundly. "The Signaller" follows, a stark, sad, beautiful story of the title character's successful struggle to become a Signaller, and the violent fate that awaits him on his first solo assignment, as well as the mysterious person he encounters alone in the back woods. "Brother John" introduces us to a monk, an accomplished artist, who is radicalized when he is forced to record in his drawings the efforts of an "inquisitor" to torture the "truth" out of a crop of suspected sinners, and who almost by accident starts a grassroots rebellion. "Lords and Ladies" takes up with the Strange family again, as Jesse's niece, prosperous as a result of Jesse's hard work, meets a charismatic scion of the local noble family -- this story shows the class structure of this alternate England effectively, and sets the scene, as it were, for the conclusion. But next is the mystical "The White Boat", in which a simple fishergirl becomes obssessed with the title vessel on its repeated visits to her home cove. Finally, in "Corfe Gate", Jesse Strange's great-niece, ruler of a castle, finds herself pushed to open resistance to the harsh rule of Rome, and with the help of her mysterious seneschal, John Faulkner, starts a country-wide rebellion, with bitter if ambiguous results.
This remains a remarkable novel, beautifully written and unexpected in its working out. The characters come fully to life. The hints of mysterious elements working in the background add a special resonance to the book. The book asks interesting questions about the working out of history -- and if it suggests answers that a reader might not agree with, it does not compel agreement, but rather it compels thinking. It has been rightly regarded as a classic of SF from its first publication.
Pavane is alternate history (also alternate-timeline, though that's subtle.). Queen Elizabeth was assassinated, and the Catholic Church has maintained tyrannical control of Britain and Europe. Only limited technology is allowed, and Roberts' descriptions of the steam trains and the semaphore signalling stations are beautiful.
This is not a book with a linear plot -- the title gives a clue to its structure. Its parts work together to form a gorgeous whole, but we don't follow one character throughout, which may throw some readers. In addition, elements of worldbuilding exist -- the long description of the semaphores, for example -- which don't directly support the plot. Some readers will be bothered by that, but I wasn't. I found the world, the Signallers' Guild and all the rest, fascinating; the sort of world in which multiple wonderful stories could be told.
Though we see each character for a limited period of time, Roberts keeps them sympathetic and interesting. The whole book has a mythic feel. Though written in '66, I found nothing dated about it. The only thing that might perhaps change from a modern standpoint is that I think Roberts intended the end to be entirely happy. From the perspective of 2002, it's bittersweet, with the beauty of what was lost shadowing the bright modernity with a dark counterpoint.
The novel is told through a series of six 'Measures', vignettes of story and mood focusing on a different character each time. While each works separately, taken together they form a tapestry linking thematic and narrative concerns - producing, ultimately, a beautifully-conceived and wonderfully effective tale of twentieth century England stifled by an all-powerful, anti-progress Catholic Church.
The alternate England is a triumph of understated, economical world-building (something that many of today's fantasy novels could learn from, perhaps). It is filled with enduring images - the Signallers' towers, the steam engines, the land held in winter's icy grasp - made all the more striking and memorable because we are shown them through the eyes of convincing and distinctive characters.
My only criticism would be of the 'Coda', which feels superfluous, and far too neat. Otherwise, this is a moving story of a transforming world, all the more effective for being incompletely explained.
The book is not one single narrative, but six short stories plus a coda section, taking place over a period of several generations. While reading it, you may think that the stories are barely related, but as you read on, you discover more and more connections, like the pieces of a puzzle falling into place. (For this reason, don't take the advice of the earlier reviewer who suggested only reading the first two stories.) Then the coda comes along with a revelation that causes you to rethink everything that came before -- and perhaps read the book over again to see what you missed.
The images of the England in Pavane will stay with you a long time. This book is a treasure; it deserves its reputation.