Like many self-indulgent writers, Roberts’ main problem is self-indulgence. Unlike many self-indulgent writers, however, that’s also the draw here. Five pages in, and I’m barely resisting the urge to scrap this purple bridge to nowhere. Go for twenty more and he’s rambled off sentence after sentence of inane imagery, tedious psychologizing, and over-worked technical mechanics of the world [the opening train running salvo; and the workings of the semaphores (although, maybe if I knew something more than nothing about either, there would have been some novel angle within the descriptions, but I don’t think so)]. Yet, five pages after that, and there we are, inexorably pulled into the world, or we might say lulled into it, by that same self-indulgence, which drops over you until you hardly realize that a real person, with a really tangible sense of social position and relation, has started to slowly emerge fully formed out of the dross (I’m thinking here of the semaphore operator).
Otherwise, it’s become clear that it’s never a good sign when my “thoughts” about a work quickly become abstract, the work provoking general rather than work-specific questions. Here, namely: alternate history’s reflexive inclusion within science fictional categories makes absolutely no sense [not to say that the ‘playing out’ of the post-jonbar turn can’t be sf, just that the initial assumption that it invariably is is incorrect], especially as, if it needs a genre outside of itself, it should obviously be fantasy. And, at that, the toying around with the “Old Ones” and pagan history of England seemed laughable and a forced inclusion of what seems to have been a mid-to-late-century English neo-pagan-revivalist obsessions. If the turn is a truncated Reformation, then pining for lost religion that skips over the most recent seems far-fetched.
That said, even considering PAVANE as alternate history seems a stretch–as if we don’t need actual proof of the playing out of the hinge in the text itself, just his explicit reassurance that it’s happened and played out this way. Absent the preface, would anyone be able to surmise any of that sixteenth-century history from the subsequent chapters? More bluntly, how exactly does Elizabeth’s assassination in 1588 engender literally any of the twentieth-century consequences we see on display here? Where the fuck are the Spanish,? A more concerned reader might be sidestruck by the old school English anti-Popery on display here [whether refracted through contemporary Mertonian filters or not], but, given the lack of an authorial voice at all, outside of the stifling loquaciousness of setting and minute movement description, I found the bias seeping through on these points as at least a quaint sign of life. One realizes halfway through, as well, that we’re dealing with a fix-up novel–and one only haphazardly fixed-up at that.