Top positive review
11 people found this helpful
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.