A different kind of magic, showing something of what lies behind the illusions
Cartomancy is map-magic and in this collection of shorter fiction, Mary Gentle uses the titular story dealing with such enchantment as a framework for other tales. The book opens in a world where a seductive halfling accompanied by orcs, shows an Elven pontiff how to look into other worlds from a gallery of enchanted maps in the Vatican, as he seeks knowledge of good and evil to use in his battle against Darkness. The first place he looks at is North Africa’s barren shore. Here readers of Mary Gentle’s Ash find themselves in familiar territory, where a gang of European mercenaries find themselves with a corpse they cannot bury in a religious dispute and we find an intelligent exploration of the good and evil in ordinary men. After which the spell is entirely suspended for an illuminating afterword by the author, explaining the genesis of the story.
The book continues in this pattern, with each story followed by a brief explanation where this particular tale came from and making more general comment on the writing process and the business of being an author. Era and characters shift from a brief glimpse of the modern day, where a Japanese fox spirit walks into a martial arts dojo, to a longer sojourn in a parallel earth where a Knight Templar in camouflage and armed by Heckler and Koch is called to answer for the Roanoke massacre in the New Holy Land. Then we’re abruptly back to the gleeful weirdness of the world first explored in Grunts, specifically at the little-known military encounter of Orc’s Drift. This amusement contrasts sharply with a strange new world were Tarot dice are central to what the author freely admits isn’t her most accessible story. As a counterpoint to this, the next tale is a brisk piece of socially-conscious SF, before we travel to yet another intriguing fantasy world where Mary Gentle focuses once more on the role of the warrior woman in a quasi-feudal society of a Hundred Isles.
What God Abandoned picks up some ideas such as Rosicrucianism, already familiar to those who’ve read 1610 but that’s not a requirement for appreciating a strange and unnerving tale. There’s a different warning in the following story where cultural misunderstandings with aliens far out in space could lead to a deadly conclusion for one little girl. In Cast a Long Shadow a simple idea is worked to chilling effect in a contemporary seaside funfair. The Sun in the Attic shines on questions of use and abuse of technology while the next journey takes us back to the Hundred Isles world where another warrior woman hunts a sea monster that unexpectedly presents her with choices between evils. Finally, we see a chilling wickedness in a near-future SF story where the idea of pet as child substitute is not so much turned inside out as eviscerated. The Elven pontiff returns in the final pages and we see him now utterly in thrall to the map-magic, drawn with exhaustion and hunger but unable to look away. Which suits the orc who proves to be far more then the halfling Zerra’s brute muscle very well indeed.
With the shifts of scene and pace and the breaks for the author’s comments, this collection is not at all like Mary Gentle’s long novels where the reader becomes immersed in the worlds of her fertile imagination. For a start, you can put this book down and pick it up again, as opposed to burning the midnight oil as you become engrossed. The reader of works such as Ash and 1610 will be intrigued by sidelights shone on these works and will see her return to established themes such as the double-edged nature of power, responsibility and loyalty. Don’t be put you off if you haven’t read her longer works though; such familiarity isn’t a requirement for appreciating these stories in their own right. The worlds of the modern Knight Templar and the Hundred Isles are wholly new to me and these stories work extremely well regardless.
If you are an aspiring writer, you will certainly benefit from the insights into the creative processes of a truly original author. If you like your fantasy, or your SF, comforting and light-hearted, this is not the collection for you, but then neither is Mary Gentle’s other work. If you like your own preconceptions on good, evil, sex and humanity challenged, in stories that both acknowledge and yet breathe new life into conventions of the SF&F genre, while offering a chill down the spine as well as a ripe guffaw here and there, do read this.
This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.