It has been a while since the last Mary Gentle novel. Ilario came out in 2006, and we’ve seen nothing since. As the new book, The Black Opera, came out first from Night Shade I had been worried that she was suffering from mid list crisis, but I gather than Gollancz still have faith in her and will bring out a UK edition later this year. Much relief there, but how does the new book stack up?
The first thing to note is that The Black Opera is a stand-alone. It isn’t set in the Ash universe, as Ilario was, or any of Gentle’s other worlds. It is, however, set in a parallel universe. More of that later. The story is set in the early 19th Century not long after the Napoleonic Wars. It seems like the Eyjafjallajökull eruption has encouraged authors to look into other spectacular volcanic effects. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 led to a global climate catastrophe known as the “Year without a summer”. The Black Opera opens with Tambora blowing its top. Mary Robinette Kowal’s next novel is apparently set around the same time, though I’m guessing not for the same reason.
What is Gentle’s interest in Mount Tambora? She postulates a secret society known as the Prince’s Men whose philosophy derives from Catharism. Being generally opposed to worldly authority, and wishing to bring down governments, they have devised a form of anti-Mass by which they can cause volcanoes to erupt through the performance of opera. Mount Tambora was a test of their technique. Now they plan a repeat performance in southern Italy. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies unites Naples and Sicily. As its territory includes both Vesuvius and Etna, it is uniquely vulnerable to such an attack.
King Ferdinand’s spies have got word of the plot, but countering it is not so easy. The Prince’s Men have powerful allies. The only solution would seem to be to stage a counter-opera that would oppose the malign influence of the Black Opera. And so, for various complicated reasons, Conrad Scalese, a penniless librettist, becomes the last hope of the Two Sicilies.
That’s the set-up. You find that out in the first couple of chapters, and most of it from the back cover blurb. The novel then follows Scalese’s efforts to get a top quality opera written and staged in just six weeks. He has, as you might expect, a bunch of misfits to work with. As this is a Mary Gentle novel, and let’s face it opera has a proud tradition of gender bending, they include some people with unconventional lifestyles. One is a young woman who lives as a man, primarily because of the work opportunities this affords, and another is a trans woman who has made a career as an opera soprano.
The role of opera in the novel is by no means incidental. I’m not a great expert on the subject, and there were times when I felt that I needed to be in order to understand what was happening. Then again, if I did know more, I might have become enraged. I have no idea whether Gentle’s understanding of opera will pass muster or not. I’m hoping that CN Lester will read the book and give a professional opinion. Roz Kaveney knows a lot more than I do as well, and may offer an opinion sometime soon.
What I really loved about the book, however, is that the plot unfolds like an opera itself. It has, as I have already noted, a girl disguised as a boy. It also has a love triangle, with a very remarkable lady at the center of it. It is all deliciously meta, which is one of the reasons I love Gentle’s books.
And that reminds me, I promised to explain how I knew that the book took place in a parallel universe. Well there’s the whole blowing up volcanoes with music thing, of course, but the bit where I sat up and took notice was early on in the book. Scalese is in a library working on his libretto, when the peace of the venue is disturbed by a chill wind and sepulchral moan.
An old man in a scholar’s voluminous robes sniffed, returning pointedly to his leather-bound tome.
Searching for what had disturbed him, Conrad instantly saw the translucent shimmering form of a ghost.
The spectre drifted through the main library table, ignoring how it cut its body off at the waist. The skirts of its formal velvet coat swirled through the page that Conrad had been reading. White eyes looked down.
Scalese, by the way, is a notorious atheist. He finds nothing unusual about the existence of ghosts. Nor do any of the Natural Philosophers working in King Ferdinand’s library, though they clearly think that Scalese’s dead father has poor manner. If the dead return, there must be a good, scientific reason for it. Gentle makes this work. What she’s doing here, of course, is creating a fantasy world, with magic and undead, and making it work by science fictional rules. Goodness only knows how many of the genre police will spot that, but I admire it.
I don’t want to say too much about this ending at this point. I will note, however, that Sandrine, the trans woman, comes out very well. This is in marked contrast to the unfortunate gender politics in Ilario. Given the nature of the ending of The Black Opera, there may be some sort of apology being offered. If so, I’m happy to accept it.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository