No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, November 01, 1999

The Stars Compel -- Michaela Roessner

This is a novel imbued with the scents and tastes of its setting – an alternate Renaissance Italy, where the precociously Machiavellian Caterina de'Medici (aged eleven) is threading her way through a maze of political and magical intrigues.

The viewpoint character is not Caterina herself, but Tommasso Arista, her cook. Tommasso isn't a mere kitchen boy, but an artist in his own right: apprenticed to Cellini, he is Michelangelo's lover and Caterina's confidante. His family tree includes not only prestigious cooks, but his grandmother Angelina – whose amazing recovery from a debilitating illness is popularly ascribed to her occult powers – and his dead sister Ginevra, whose spirit apparently lives on in a ruby pendant around Caterina's slender neck.

Tommasso's everyday life is drawn as a fascinating and frustrating melange of famous names, kitchen feuds, mouthwatering recipes and occult visions. His recipes are described in tantalising detail (this is most definitely not a book to read while you're dieting) and, while some of the epicurean details may seem anachronistic – were turkey and coffee well-known New World imports as early as 1530? – Roessner's research is sound enough in other areas to give verisimilitude to the more obscure details.

Tommasso understands only a little of the cosmic events unfolding around him - and so, perforce, the reader is similarly confused. It seems that Caterina is just one incarnation of a being who inhabits many planes, and who has chosen to be born into the nobility of 16th-century Florence in order to combat the forces of darkness. Caterina regains awareness of her greater self only in dreams, and during her waking hours has no knowledge of the choice she's made.

There's plenty to distract her, though. Her magical powers are gaining strength as she nears adolescence, and she is uneasily aware that a battle between good and evil is being fought through the streets of Florence and Rome. Caterina herself, Tommasso and her beloved cousin Ippolito are game pieces on the side (of course) of Good. Ranged against them are the villains of the piece – Alessandro de'Medici, ostensibly her half-brother but probably the Pope's bastard son; Lorenzaccio de'Medici, another cousin: and an array of necromancers, demons, assassins and politicians. Their aim is not clear, but indications are that it is Evil.

Those who haven't read the first in the series, The Stars Dispose, may find the plot convoluted and obscure. There is no summary of the events recounted in the previous novel: this, perhaps, is why the forces of evil seem no more than mildly unpleasant.

City of Diamond -- Jane Emerson

Proper space opera, and a nice thick book to boot. Not that I'd dream of booting it: this is one of the paperbacks which is doomed to eventual disintegration, since it's hooked me comprehensively.

The premise - which put me off when I first read the blurb - is that aliens have donated a set of three 'city-ships' (generation ships built of a strange rock-like substance) to a group of humans bound by a common religion, Redemptionism, founded by one Adrian Sawyer centuries before the beginning of this novel. Now the Cities - Diamond, Opal and Pearl - are in an uneasy state of truce as they roam the galaxy looking for (a) trade opportunities and (b) a couple of handy religious relics - which, given the futuristic setting, are likely to be far more than just trinkets.

What makes this anything other than just a run-of-the-mill space opera? Appealing characters, for one: if not a cast of thousands, there are certainly at least ten viewpoint characters, ranging from the Irish Zen-assassin Keylinn to the high-born, sheltered Iolanthe Pelagia, the Protector's new bride; from the sociopathic 'demon' (the technical term for those of a particular half-human, half-alien genetic background) Tal to this employee, the pragmatic petty criminal and social outcast Spider.

The society itself is compelling, and incredibly detailed, without the novel consisting largely of infodumps. Resources are strictly limited on a generation ship: Emerson does no more than hint at the Lottery which Spider has escaped. The Redemptionist religion is not explored in detail, but there is a hint of unpleasantly literal Catholicism: communion confers a mystical experience upon the faithful, and involves a fluid which turns out to contain real - alien - blood.

And the plot ... well, it is a space opera, and - even worse - it's the first in a series which looks unlikely ever to be finished. (Boo hiss!) Though it does stand alone - albeit with an rather unfinished aftertaste). There are enough plot strands - romantic, adventurous, political, religious and so on - to keep the action moving, and to make it difficult, at times, to discern either the key characters or the key plot strand - is it the alien relics, or the whole 'demon' thing, or the Graykey assassins?

But the entire novel is a delight. The whole 'Three Cities' setting, with its mixture of archaic practice (the Royal Hunt sounds positively prehistoric) and alien, incomprehensible technology, is in some ways more Renaissance than Regency. I can see why this was described as 'the bastard offspring of Heinlein and Heyer', though: it's a very mannered society (which is precisely why Tal is such an interesting character, an amoral individual viewed against the backdrop of an extremely structured society) - and there's a real sense of a somewhat claustrophobic space-dwelling society.