Erecting the Gnomon

by Arthur B

In which middle-aged submissive men and dominant teenage girls swash buckles.
Mary Gentle's historical fantasy epic 1610: A Sundial In a Grave is like The Princess Bride in reverse. Whereas Bride works on the conceit that it is a brick-sized fantasy novel trimmed down to just the good bits, 1610 presents itself as a forgotten Dumas-style swashbuckling epic with the fun parts put back in.

Specifically, it presents (along with some supporting documentation) the uncensored memoirs of one Valentin Rochefort, a trimmed-down version of which (in the framing story, at least) was put out by one of Dumas' proteges as The Sons of Sword and Hazard and mistaken for fiction until the rediscovery and reconstruction of the original. Rochefort is the disgraced son of a Marshal of France, and works as a spy in the service of the Duc de Sully, to whom he is fanatically loyal. This brings him to the attention of Queen Marie de Medici - who, appropriately enough for a member of the clan that inspired The Prince, is planning a coup. Rochefort's role is to arrange the assassination of King Henri IV, so that as his widow and as wee Prince Louis' mother Marie can rule as Regent; forced to feign co-operation due to an implied threat to de Sully's life, Rochefort decides to find the most incompetent wannabe regicide he can so that the King's guard will have no trouble foiling the slaying, so that in the aftermath of the attack Rochefort can get a warning to de Sully in the aftermath and take down Marie.

This is, needless to say, a silly plan, but it's the best Rochefort can come up with whilst under observation from Marie's agents and he judges that it gives both de Sully and Henri IV the best odds of survival. However, his hand-picked swivel-eyed maniac Ravaillac turns out to be more competent than expected, and between that and a hefty dose of bad luck the assassination is an unexpected success. Fleeing France, Rochefort soon finds himself headed to England with two companions - Dariole, a thrill-seeking 16 year old who uses a combination of hardcore duelling skills and sexual humiliation to force Rochefort to take him (or, as it later proves, her) along for the ride, and Tanaka Saburo, an aide to a Japanese diplomatic mission to James I's court that was shipwrecked off the Normandy coast, with Saburo as the only survivor.

When they reach London, Saburo just wants to salvage what he can of the diplomatic mission, Rochefort wants to try to convince someone in authority to help him expose Marie and secure the safety of de Sully, and Dariole, after failing to convince some local relatives of her identity, contents herself with gambling, brawling, and tormenting Rochefort. Little do they know that all three are to be embroiled in the calculations of Robert Fludd, who as a student of Giordano Bruno possesses mathematical techniques that allow him to predict the future some centuries ahead. Fludd foresees disaster in the form of a cometary strike, and realises that he must use his predictive capability to steer humanity down the right path to ensure that it can meet the threat of the comet when it arises. Proving the efficacy of his predictions to Rochefort through a range of demonstrations, Fludd soon blackmails Rochefort into helping another regicidal plot - killing James I so that Prince Henry can become Henry IX and lead a devastating English intervention in the coming Thirty Years' War.

So, what we have here is a swashbuckling adventure in which one of the distinctive elements is that Dariole, a teenage girl, gets into a BDSM entanglement with the forty-something Rochefort when he and she both realise that they get off on Rochefort prostrating himself before Dariole and begging for mercy and not getting very much of it. The expansive age gap is not the only thing which might shock readers about the relationship even if the dominance/submission deal doesn't phase you; Dariole initiates things through what can only be called sexual abuse, and early on in their interactions Rochefort tries to reassert his authority over Dariole (who he still things is a random duellist tough guy rather than a crossdressing runaway noblewoman) through anal rape, a gambit which Dariole derails by offering enthusiastic consent. Perhaps most alarming is the murder angle; at one point, when they are still fuckfoes (like fuckbuddies, but enemies rather than pals), Rochefort is right on the point of straight up shooting Dariole dead, abandoning all thoughts of doing so when he finally discovers that Dariole is a woman.

This last is a point that demands unpacking. Whilst Dariole is presented as being wild at heart and weird on top and is specifically described as an outlier, and therefore has zero qualms about disguising herself as a man or ravaging a middle-aged submissive man or generally doing as she pleases, Rochefort is much less of a proto-Sadean and is deeply alarmed by the discovery that Dariole is a woman. He frets more about the idea that he has this grudging infatuation with a crossdressing woman than he did about being in love with a boy, because by his standards Dariole's blanket rejection of traditional gender roles is far more of a crime against nature than mere sodomy. He worries that he is corrupting Dariole with his perversion, when if anyone is doing the corrupting it's clearly Dariole with her unsolicited cock-tampering. The major romantic arc of the book involves Rochefort becoming reconciled both to his sexual desires and his past, Dariole becoming reconciled to being an eccentric with attitudes that set her outside her era and deciding that she's cool with that, and Gentle selling to the reader the idea that yes, this relationship is unconventional even by BDSM standards and started out kind of awfully, but at the same time it makes too much sense for either party to deny and you kind of have to be happy for them when they finally work it out.

Though dominance and submission is a prominent feature of the book, this isn't Fifty Shades of Swashbucklers. Sexuality is dealt with unflinchingly, but extended sex scenes for their own sake are absent. Moreover, whilst BDSM is a feature of Rochefort and Dariole's relationship, it is never presented as a medium for them solving their problems. Even when their initial rivalry is resolved and they come to admit the nature of their relationship, major differences arise between them - such as their radically opposed opinions of what is to be done with Robert Fludd, or the matter of Rochefort's incredible loyalty to de Sully (the nature of which we are prompted to wonder about until late in the book, because a more pragmatic henchman would have given up de Sully as a lost cause early on). When these differences arise they are never solved through the medium of a BDSM session, and Dariole's dominance in sexual matters doesn't extend to her having a veto elsewhere. There is one point when a person is tortured at the hands of Dariole and Rochefort so that Dariole can get some form of closure for a great wrong, which drifts close to drawing parallels with their BDSM activities, but afterwards both seem uncomfortable with the direction that went in and agree that the streams should not be crossed in such a way. In short, Rochefort and Dariole's sexual activities, whilst unquestionably being part of the story by dint of how they shape their interactions, are not the point of the story; this is a depiction of BDSM but not a fantasy about it.

The core story occupies an interesting and in my experience almost unique niche, since it is a reverse alternate history. The predictive powers of the few characters such as Fludd who can use Bruno's mathematics is used by them to posit a range of future timelines diverging from our own - unending absolutist tyranny, utter disintegration into packs of bickering warlords, at least one future in which Japan jumped onto the European-style colonialism game much earlier than it did in our history and ended up in a nuclear confrontation with the US which roasted the entire home islands, and so on. All of these alternates, however, are ultimately thwarted, and at the conclusion Rochefort, having definitively decided that he owes the Duc de Sully no more, becomes the founder of a Rosicrucian conspiracy to shepherd the timeline (presumably along the lines of actual history).

Here, then, we have a story about alternate directions history could have taken, but which does not actually steer history down any of those avenues. Moreover, whilst the users of this occult mathematics are capable of making highly accurate short term predictions, there is strong grounds to believe that actually their predictions are of little or no utility beyond a certain range. First off, the predictive mathematics they use seems to be subject to a sort of macroscopic version of the quantum mechanical observer effect, wherein the act of observation is not a neutral act but affects the system observed; specifically, using this mathematics to predict the future introduces uncertainty for subsequent predictions about the same subject matter by other users of Bruno's techniques. Secondly, whilst calculations for events in the near future can be startlingly accurate, at the same time it is decidedly possible to derail them - in particular, Dariole's status as a statistical outlier means that she is capable of taking actions that Fludd's calculations can't account for.

Statistics being what they are, the more observations you make and the longer the time you make observations for, the more outliers you get showing up; can we really expect that the Bruno equations hold true for hundreds of years, in that case? Fludd assumes that statistical outliers will cancel out over time, but the outcome of the novel (as well as the principles of chaos theory) suggest the opposite - that things become exponentially more difficult to predict the further out you go, so any prediction beyond a certain range is too vague to be credible. (This is precisely why weather forecasts get broader and more vague the further ahead you get - the computing power which can make very detailed predictions for tomorrow can make only sketchy guesses come next week.)

In the end, all Fludd and Rochefort and the others with irons in the predictive fire are working with are possible futures - which is exactly what we're working with anyway, except Fludd has enough confidence in his predictions that he uses them to justify dire acts. In other words, this is a fantasy where the one fantastic element might be radically less potent and powerful and amazing than the characters in the story think it is, which is a bit of a departure from the norm.

So you have unusual characters with a relationship which follows a distinctly atypical course, you have swashbuckling and conspiracies to delight Dumas and a vivid evocation of the time period which makes excellent use of Gentle's historical search without being show-offy about it, and you have a fantasy element which manages to combine the gravitas of prophecy whilst ensuring that the future isn't so immutable as to take tension out of what's going on, and you have Gentle doing a great job of making you feel like James I is in mortal peril even though you know he's got plenty of years left on the clock. What's to dislike about it?

Well, aside from how fat a tome it is (it's just over 700 pages, which I think is slightly excessive for what the story is doing), you have a really quite startlingly clumsy rape angle. See, at one point Fludd has Dariole kidnapped in order to ensure that Rochefort doesn't get any ideas about derailing the assassination plot. During this time she is violently raped by Fludd's lackeys, Luke and John; whilst Fludd doesn't specifically order them to do this, equally he doesn't forbid it, and as a result (after a brief bit where Dariole is extremely angry at Rochefort for not telling her he loved her and that therefore she could be used as leverage against him) Dariole ends up blaming Fludd, and spends most of the rest of the novel passionately dedicated to killing him. This puts her at odds with Rochefort's goals, which involve capturing and using Fludd in order to ensure the safety of the Duc de Sully.

Under other circumstances, the kidnapping itself might be irritating, and I'd be concerned about it undermining the idea that Dariole is this shit-hot duellist whose capabilities in a fight easily equal, and most likely exceed, those of both Rochefort and Saburo. Here I don't think it's such an issue, because Gentle presents combat and violence here as a field in which there are no certainties, and in which even the most competent fighters must expect to occasionally take injuries or fall foul to superior numbers. (Indeed, late in the book Dariole pulls off her greatest victory in combat precisely because she ceases to give two shits how much she needs to bleed in order to accomplish what she came to do.) And it also comes after Rochefort himself is kidnapped by Fludd's forces, so it's not as though that is an indignity which has not also been afflicted on the main lead.

The rape itself, however, seems spectacularly pointless. It prompts Rochefort to feel really bad and apologise a lot, but Rochefort feels really bad and apologises for shit that it isn't his place to apologise for anyway in his interactions with Dariole, that's just his deal. It makes Dariole realise that the stakes are actually kind of high in this game and she should perhaps apply herself to more than drinking, gambling and brawling if she's going to survive it, but all sorts of stuff could prompt that sort of response. It makes Dariole want to kill Fludd, but there are many reasons to want to kill Fludd. It just feels like a needless, sloppy, lazy and brute force method of getting Dariole to go from being this frivolous sadist who doesn't give two shits about the political matters Rochefort is involved with to someone who takes these matters deathly seriously, when there's so many other ways this could have been accomplished. It feels like Gentle got to this point in the book, realised that she needed to change Dariole's behaviour, and threw in the rape incident in order to accomplish that.

This impression isn't exactly undermined by the fact that Dariole is a prisoner for a ridiculously short time, and consequently it has absolutely no broader implications for the plot aside from existing to create an opportunity for Dariole to be raped. To get counterfactual for a moment, Gentle could have just had Dariole thwart the kidnapping attempt, and then Dariole could have had the exact same emotional arc where she's at first angry at Rochefort for not warning her that it might happen, and then is intensely angry at Fludd for orchestrating it in the first place. (Gentle could even justify her fanatical determination to kill the guy by having her conclude that she simply wouldn't believe that he could be taken prisoner and used without warping things to suit his own agenda, which would help set up some of the last phase of the book in which she and Rochefort apply themselves to the task of trying to find a use for Fludd without entirely trusting him.)

Another potentially dodgy arena is the whole "stranger in a strange land" deal with Saburo, in which he's this outsider with a very different worldview who sometimes has comical misunderstandings about English society. Saburo is by no means relegated to comic relief - he even jumps in and takes the plot off on an entirely unexpected tangent late in the game - and there is at least a section where Rochefort and Dariole and Fludd go off to Japan and get to be strangers in a strange land themselves. It's also important to remember that history isn't exclusively about Europe, and indeed 1610 was a time period when European colonialism was not so predominant that it couldn't have been derailed by outside forces (as well as being in close enough proximity to Japan's decision to close the borders that you could conceivably believe that incidents happening during the novel could have informed the later decision), but it's still a depressingly common niche for token foreign characters to occupy.

So, not perfect, and in particular Dariole's rape at the hands of Luke and John feels deeply unnecessary and is enough of a flaw that I can't recommend the book unreservedly, but I had a lot of fun with it and it was good enough to make me want to read more Gentle.

Oh, and in case anyone was about to say it: no, this is not any flavour of 'punk. Steampunk or dieselpunk or stonepunk or bronzepunk or ironpunk or swashbucklepunk or threethirtyfourandtensecondsintheafternoongreenwichmeantimeonthefourteenthofseptembereighteenthirtysevenunderthegregoriancalendarpunk are genres which call for divergent technologies and timelines (or entire constructed worlds set at a particular level of technological development) which you simply don't have here. At most, you have Bruno's mathematics, but this doesn't give rise to the sort of vivid imagery and mashup aesthetic steampunk typically calls for and there is little sign of it ever doing so. Some of the futures envisaged with the mathematics might have qualified as steampunk, but they're specifically throttled in the crib by the actions of the characters here, an act for which they have my full support. If "historical fantasy" as a term has any meaning distinct from "steampunk", I'd say this is firmly on the "historical fantasy" side of the line.

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Comments (go to latest) at 03:39 on 2014-04-13
I think a good portion of Saburo's... Impact was precisely that he started out as presented as the "funny foreigner" and then towards the end of the book you suddenly realize that he's got an agenda of his own, and isn't just there to tag along. It's an obvious literary trick, but it works rather well IMHO.

Janne Kirjasniemi at 11:08 on 2014-04-14
So, did the Japanese in that alternative timeline start to colonize modern Indonesia or Philippines or something? By 1610 they had had that disastrous excursion to Korea just a while ago, which might have had an impact on further expansion in our own timeline.
Arthur B at 11:19 on 2014-04-14
@Arilou: I sort of see your point, though that's a misdirection which kind of depends on selling the reader on the "funny foreigner" stereotype. That said, it makes sense that Rochefort falls for it because he does tend to forget that other people have their own agendas and goals and aren't just background scenery to an extent which the narrative mostly doesn't (for instance, you get short snippets slipped in from Dariole and Saburo's own accounts of events which give their own particular perceptions of what's happened).

@Janne: In the optimal timeline for Japanese expansion they go back to Korea and win the second time, take on China, and at their largest extent are participants in the scramble for Africa. Then a World War against the timeline's US equivalent happens, resulting either in a one-sided nuclear genocide or a full planet-killing nuclear exchange, depending on whether or not Japan's own Manhattan Project succeeds. at 14:51 on 2014-04-14
@Janne: Another possible POD would be the planned invasion of the Philipines in the early 1600's that was derailed by the Shimabara rebellion in 1637.

Janne Kirjasniemi at 15:17 on 2014-04-14
That would be an interesting scenario, given that the Spanish were already established there. I remember having read a letter from Hideyoshi to the Viceroy there and that letter seemed pretty aggressive, so it could have happened. Getting past those Spanish ships might have presented a problem though.
Arthur B at 15:24 on 2014-04-14
I believe part of the departure point was going all-in on improving Japanese ship design and manufacture so they could produce a fleet that could effectively tackle the Spanish.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 18:03 on 2014-04-14
That's actually somewhat credible, as there had been Portuguese and Spanish ships trading there for near 100 years at this point and Hidayoshi's armies certainly perfected the use of gunpowder weapons effectively enough.
Arthur B at 18:14 on 2014-04-14
A point which Gentle actually neatly touches on when, during their first encounter with him, Saburo turns out to be an expert hand at filling and reloading Rochefort's pistols (which is crucial in helping them get the upper hand on a Medici ambush team). at 02:26 on 2014-04-15
It should be pointed out that the european "empires" weren't all that established in 1637: It's not as if the spanish could sail the Armada (even before it was sunk) to the Philippines easily. (the original invasion plans also involved using dutch ships, which, considering this is in the middle of the 30-years war, could possibly be provided) at 02:30 on 2014-04-15
Also, IIRC for some unknown reason the japanese never really adopted pistols on a larger scale. They produced a ton of muskets (even some rifled models, IIRC) but they used them even for cavalry (where europeans preferred pistols) unclear why.

Though partially it was probably because japanese cavalry was pretty unimpressive by european or central-asian standards (horses were small and relatively rare) and was mainly used as archery platforms (where I guess a musket would be easier to adapt than the relatively different tactics used by pistol-armed cavalry)
Janne Kirjasniemi at 20:15 on 2014-04-16
It should be pointed out that the european "empires" weren't all that established in 1637

Well that's certainly true, although Spanish trade from the New World and to China, where the main Spanish trade item was silver from the Americas, did go through Philippines. Interestingly, they had a series of naval battles against stronger Dutch forces and managed to win, but certainly if the Japanese would have access to better technology, it would have been very different and definitely nothing clear cut.

On the pistols and cavalry, the variations in cavalry were quite significant in this time period in Europe, certainly the swedes deployed cavalry units with pistols and others as well, but in many cases lances and swords were still widely in use. By this time the classic steppe horse archers had also lost their edge against the Russians in any serious warfare, but the Crimeans did raid extensively in the south, helped by the Ottomans. The disadvantages of Japanese cavalry sprang from lack of horses, but perhaps also from the fact that infantry armed with muskets was in ascendance everywhere and was becoming more important all over.
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