1610: A Sundial in a Grave

Written by Mary Gentle
Review by C.W. Gortner

“It’s about sex, cruelty, and forgiveness.” Thus does Mary Gentle commence her marvelously inventive novel of espionage, assassination, and precognitive mayhem in the early 17th century. Published in the UK in 2004, with this trade paperback edition issued in the US last year to little fanfare, this is one of those rare novels that leaves one in awe at its sheer spectacle, and makes one wonder how such talent has not garnered more recognition. The answer to the latter is obvious: This book requires the reader to pay attention, a quality today’s entertainment media has weaned us away from.

The year, of course, is 1610. Valentin Rochefort, a middle-aged duelist and expert spymaster for Henry IV of France’s head minister, finds himself quite without warning plunged into a labyrinthine plot to murder the beloved French monarch, one that ends with a price on Rochefort’s head and his enforced escape to Stuart England, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a perplexing enemy/love interest at his side. Here, he becomes embroiled once again in a treasonous snare; this time, masterminded by a fervent and frighteningly prophetic mathematician, one of the last surviving disciples of the heretic Italian conjuror, Bruno.

Toss into the mix a riotous depiction of an aging James I, a shipwrecked samurai with a secret, and an unexpected erotic twist, and you have an action-laced, multi-layered novel à la Dumas, detailing with wit and verve everything from obscure formulae to the intricacies of Renaissance swordplay, and the oft-bewildering consequences of human passion. Not for the prim or the indolent, 1610 will delight those seeking a vivid recreation of a tumultuous age, unusual and refreshingly authentic characters, and a plot that flows from the breathtaking to the sublime, without apology or sentimentality.