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on 4 August 2003
This is an omnibus edition featuring the novels Rats and Gargoyles and Architecture of Desire, the novella Left to his Own Devices, and several short stories. All but one short story features versions of the characters White Crow and Casaubon.
Rats and Gargoyles:
This is a gorgeously written book, involving some fascinating and very original concepts, and featuring some wonderful characters. It's also a very difficult read in terms of the plot; it's confusing; it rambles; and it probably could have stood some pruning. I recommend it anyway.
Gentle writes well. She uses language beautifully. Even when the plot had lost me, I still enjoyed the images she presents.
The setting is a sort of seventeenth -- maybe -- century European one, only with human-sized rats in charge of humans, and gods (Decans) over all. The gargoyles of the title are the Decans' bestial acolytes. Alchemical and architectural concepts, including illustrations from alchemical texts, give the world-building depth. There's no real discussion of how the rats got to be in charge, and little about rat society, which seems very human-like, but I didn't find that to be a major flaw.
Characters stand out in their refusal to be stereotyped as fantasy heroes. Casaubon, the large and personally unhygienic Lord Architect, is perhaps the best and I was happy to see that he "gets the girl" in the end -- the "girl" being the rather deadly scholar, sorceress and swordfighter White Crow. There are probably too many characters, over all, but I can't name one of them as being unentertaining.
The plot is utterly confusing. The world, at the will of one of the Decans, is going to end. The characters have to stop that from happening. Meanwhile, humans are rebelling against rats, humans are rebelling against Decans, rats are rebelling against Decans and rats are rebelling against their own monarchy. It's a wonderful chaos, and I became quite lost at various points. It's also true that the plot goes on for perhaps too long -- in particular the post-saving-the-world portion (though it included some lovely images). But the end is wonderful.
I'd recommend this to anyone who doesn't mind being somewhat befuddled and wants to read original, gorgeously written fantasy.
Architecture of Desire:
Gentle, here, portrays a fascinating world -- an alternative Protectorate England -- with filth and luxury, magic and hard-eyed politics, juxtaposed. I was disappointed at the shortness of the book therefore. There seems to be so much here -- and the author keeps so much to herself.

The characters are interesting, truly "different", especially the large and less than hygienic Casaubon. The protagonist, the physician/sorceress/warrior White Crow is violent, conflicted and ultimately quite real. The mercenary Pollexfen has his moments, especially on the gallows. But other characters get short shrift. Both the Protector Olivia and Queen Carola could be far deeper than they are here. Toward the end of the book, I found White Crow's motivations unclear, to the point that I wasn't really sure what she intended to do.
Gentle writes well and has established that through a number of excellent books. She also pulls no punches. Architecture of Desire is cold and brutal, to be sure. It also contains some strange, dizzying POV shifts, and the indeterminacy of the conclusion bothered me. But the imagery is stark and stunning.
Another near-miss here concerns the plot. One plot line, that of a massive public structure which cannot, or should not, be built because the tainted royal blood used to sanctify its foundations has attracted demons -- is fascinating. I love the themes of architecture, cosmology and the human soul, and they fit the time period very well. But Gentle has chosen to focus on what for me is a less original and interesting plot, that of White Crow's and Pollexfen's dual rape of a woman named Desire and the choice White Crow must make when the mercenary ends up about to be hanged. As I've said, I found the end alarmingly unclear: is White Crow going back to Casaubon and their young children... or not?
I recommend this as a pill against milksop literature, but not without some reservations.
Left to His Own Devices didn't work so well for me; a postapocalyptic vision of a very hot London, it contains some interesting ideas, but never really gets off the ground in terms of tension, conflict and plot.
The short stories are a mixed bag. In general, they feature beautiful sentence-level writing, fascinating ideas, interesting characters, opaque plots, and more or less disastrously awful pacing.
Gentle's introduction is worth reading in itself. I don't really comprehend many SFF authors' attempts to disassociate themselves from "fantasy", which they choose to see as exclusively comprised of awful, giant, cliched serieses of the kind we all know and loathe. There's a self-defensive tone to the introduction. I'm also not sure I understand her comments on internal dialogue, since she uses it in several forms, particularly in the Ash books -- and uses it well. However, as a writer, I find her championship of intelligent, well-researched fiction inspiring.
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on 12 June 2003
Disturbing but never predictable, it's nice to get all the 'White Crow' stories in one volume, along with a couple of short stories I'd not seen elsewhere. Hand-crafted darkness, every murky shadow a bespoke gloom.
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on 11 January 2004
I wanted to like White Crow, I bought it after reading 1610 by the same author but it's a disappointment. White Crow is a collection of short stories and a couple of novels in different universes which revolve around a pair of characters White Crow (Valentine) and Casaubon (Fat bloke).
To be honest I found the book as a whole almost unreadable, I suspect (though haven't bothered to check) that the stories in it predate the writing of 1610 quite considerably and the author has improved much since.
The scene setting is poorly done and confusing, I found myself back-pedalling several pages, going back to the start of chapters on occasion, re-reading them and still coming up dazed and confused muttering WTF?. The plots are basically non existent in most of the stories, the characters instead lurch from one apparently random occurrence to another.
The characters themselves are simple caricatures, Casaubon is a fat slob and Valentine the feisty female hero who gain no sympathy or empathy from me, I repeatedly found myself hoping one or both of them would be killed off as I fought through the pages.
Conclusion... It's a hard read and not particularly satisfying.
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After reading Mary Gentle's masterwork (Ash), and then being disappointed with 1610 (sundial...), but happier with Ilario, I ventured into this tome, not sure what to expect. It is a few short stories and a couple of serious fantasy 'epics'. The same characters in various different situations / times / histories / universes, have somewhat perplexing and often unexplained adventures.
But it is Mary Gentle's writing that shines through - glorious descriptive passages, multiple story lines, complex ideas, and some Very Strange characters. I never thought that I would fancy a Rat... but the descriptions of Zari, and the way her tail acts like another hand, are delicate and sensuous... (time for a lie down).
The actual main characters are the (literally) larger than life Lord-Architect Causobon and the magical, mystical White Crow - and they forge their ways through Mary Gentle's various universes with a library of esoteric Hermetic science to help them battle the gods, demons and other assorted foes.
I am not sure I entirely understood the plot of any of the stories - as Mary Gentle explains in her introduction, you never get to hear the characters inner thoughts - only their speech and actions.
But these are books to revisit (and revisit again) with always a little more explanation to be gleaned. Well worth the effort (but only 4* as Ash got 5*).
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on 28 April 2006
There are several stories in this chunky volume and the central characters in each are Valentine "White Crow" and Baltazar Casaubon. Each adventure happens in a different place/time or maybe in a different 'parallel universe'. Whether the two characters hop about from one reality to another or they are meant to be understood as parallel characters in parallel universes is never made clear. It's all a bit of a guessing game. The motivation of the characters is obscure and their behaviour eccentric and inconsistent. Valentine, in the early stories appears to be a heroic figure but in the last story in particular, she disintegrates, for no apparent reason, into an amoral, messed-up and neurotic idiot. The most consistent thread running through the series of stories is Casaubon's revolting personal habits and hygiene. The constant references to his nose picking, scratching and examining the crop of bodily excretions under his finger nails; the unending flow of food-stuffs dribbled down his front, wiped on his sleeves and breeches; the general filth, snot and gravy - begin to grate on the senses after a while. It seems impossible for the author to refer to Casaubon at all without a long description of his picking, poking, scratching and wiping of muck, sweat, scurf and so on. The effect of this continual barrage of smelly and sticky description makes his character seem like a solid, physical presence. To that extent, the writing is quite impressive. It's almost everything else that falls short.

There's also a Foreword by the author that doesn't add anything useful. Its pompous and conceited tone leads the reader to expect something really special - an expectation that's doomed to disappointment.

Previous reviewers have indicated that Mary Gentle has written far better books than this so it's a pity that this is the first I've read. I didn't enjoy it very much. I'll try another.
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on 20 May 2007
If you enjoyed the Viriconium stories of M. John Harrison, there's a good chance you'll enjoy these. These are complex, layered, well-crafted stories for literate, educated adults. True, Rats and Gragoyles goes on a bit too long, and feels as if it was written without a clear plan or structure as it wanders its way slowly towards a conclusion. But overall, if you are looking for something different in the fantasy line, something to reawaken your interest in this tired old genre, try this author. I would agree, though, that if you are new to her work you might want to start with Ash or 1610 as they are a bit easier to get into.
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on 27 April 2003
Having enormously enjoyed and admired Mary Gentle's earlier books 'Orthe' and 'Ash', I bought'White Crow' with considerable anticipation. Unfortunately I found it a total disappointment. In the first story, the characters have a speech quirk whereby they begin sentences with the words 'see you', which only reminded me of Scottish comedians. I was also annoyed by the number of times a character was described - cinnamon hair or reddish eyes -and so on. My brain is capable of remembering a character without having to be constantly reminded. Having finished the book I was left feeling completely let down: as I said - a great disappointment.
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