I am going to begin by saying that this book came highly recommended. Very highly indeed.
Now that I have said that, I am also going to say that it really shouldn’t matter that it was, neither to you nor to me. The fact that everyone and their dog seems to think a work is wonderful should never oblige you to agree with these opinions. After all, the emperor really may not have any clothes.
The emperor in question is Pavane, by Keith Roberts. It is an alternate history novel that recounts what direction the world would have taken should no Anglican reformation have ever happened in England. In this alternate history, England remained catholic and by extension the catholic church remained extremely powerful throughout history.
But here is the problem. This novel is (a term I learned from wikipedia) a fix-up novel – a novel which was created by stitching together several short stories.
Is that even a novel? I know that is one hell of a hot take, and a lot of people are going to ask what the hell authority I even have to make such a distinction. But I think it is a question worth asking. And I think this novel in particular is an excellent example of why the question is worth asking.
Science-fiction author and critic Samuel R Delany has written a number of essays on the art of writing fiction. One of the things he has argued against is the ‘fix-up’ novel, where a novel is created by mashing together differing short stories. He thinks it leads to bad story telling. This is just a dissuasion, and that should not matter to us one way or the other.
So I have received opinions on this book in both directions. From what I have written above it should be clear that I did not enjoy this terribly much. But what matters is how I did not enjoy it. There are a ton of virtues to this book, and I understand why it did get the acclaims that it did. This might be the most well written thing I didn’t really enjoy reading. I didn’t enjoy it after a point – I didn’t enjoy it when I was still wondering what was going on, when the narrative would kick in after being 100 pages in.
Fine then. Shall we call it a short story collection and be done with it? For me, that only solves half of the problem. One of the short stories in this collection, The White Boat was excellent. It was well written, engaging, interesting and it motivated me to keep reading. But when I finished it found myself with a series of questions, many of which I didn’t think the book could answer. What the hell did this have to do with the larger Alternate History narrative I was promised? Couldn’t this just have been reworked to fit into a normal historical fiction from England’s past? What ties this story into the other ones save for some brief mention of returning characters? The story was so peripheral to all the things I was wanting and expecting from an alternate history that I wonder if you could count it into the genre at all.
And it just didn’t work for me.
I don’t know what the missing ex-factor was. I kind of felt like maybe I had missed some key factor in enjoying Keith Roberts. I at a few points found myself thinking that ‘if only I had read some of his larger works that contextualized this peripheral ones, I would enjoy this more’.
But apparently, no such work exists.