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Gentle, Mary

Entry updated 3 April 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1956-    ) UK author who began publishing with a fantasy for young adults, A Hawk in Silver (1977; rev 1985), and who came to general notice with her Orthe sequence – Golden Witchbreed (1983) and Ancient Light (1987), both assembled, with a linked story, as Orthe: Chronicles of Carrick V (omni 2002) – which, despite the fantasy ring of the first title, is sf. The protagonist of both volumes, a woman diplomat/entrepreneur in the complexly defined employ of an Earth dominated by vast corporations, comes to Orthe in an attempt to open the planet to exploitation, but discovers the densely described humanoid Orthean culture a seeming match for the desires of her masters. Her trek across Orthe, which takes much of Golden Witchbreed and which is replicated in feel in Ancient Light, gives the sequence the typical plot-structure and landscape of Planetary Romance, though Gentle is, in fact, far less entranced by scene-setting than are the creators of the modern form (e.g., Jack Vance). The final import of the sequence – despite the sf pleasures entailed in the discovery of an ancient race whose technological hubris once seared the world, and of a huge ancient artefact (see Macrostructures) – is anything but conducive to any sense that Orthe is a planetary Secret Garden. The protagonist is older in the second volume, Orthean culture has been fatally touched by the allure of human Technology, disturbances transform the old comity, which is now torn by ethnic conflicts, and the revanchist descendants of the ancient Golden Witchbreed do finally use the secret weapon which gives that second volume its title. The Secret Garden – which lies at the heart of the true planetary romance – becomes, in Gentle's hands, the Third World.

Some of the stories assembled in Scholars and Soldiers: A Story Collection (coll 1989) are sf, but in the late 1980s Gentle turned to Fantasy, and in the White Crow sequence – Rats and Gargoyles (1990), The Architecture of Desire (1991) and Left to his own Devices (coll of linked stories 1994), all three assembled as White Crow (omni 2003) – created an Alternate History or Multiverse whose scenery and idiom were superficially reminiscent of Michael Moorcock's metaphysical romances; but Gentle was far more interested than Moorcock in the arguments that might sustain such a universe, deriving a rationale to sustain them – like John Crowley before her – from Renaissance Neoplatonism. In the first novel, it is seen that the world is sustained in the memory of a cabal of gods. In the second, set in an alternate England which mirrors Cromwellian times, the female protagonist begins, at great cost to herself and others, to outgrow the toys of Magic; Gentle has always been an author of Feminist inclinations, and she presents the sins committed by the White Crow in this novel as non-gender hubris and complacency. Less urgently, the third volume – whose long title story is set in a Near Future but decidedly alternate London – expands the scope but comes fairly close to treating the Temporal Adventuress exploits of the heroine as self-justifying.

In her magnum opus to date, Ash: A Secret History (2000; vt The Book of Ash 1999-2000 4vols [see Checklist for explanation]) – which is the first and by far the most weighty instalment in the Ash sequence – Gentle gathers into one sustained narrative the various approaches to the fantastic she had explored and exploited up to that point. The tale begins in the fifteenth century, in the mode of historical fantasy: the eponymous young woman who becomes an extremely believable mercenary leader is raped, kills the rapists, and hears a voice inside her head that gives her tactical instructions in life, which she does not necessarily heed. She finds herself dedicated to the preservation of the then-independent kingdom of Burgundy, the necessity of whose preservation comes clear only when – via experiences in the half of the world suffering under the Entropy of an Eternal Twilight, and the realization that the voice in her head is a Computer audible to Ash because she has been Genetically Engineered to perceive it, and a proper understanding of the twenty-first-century frame story – it is understood that we are inhabiting an Alternate History in the throes of an aeons-long Changewar in which Burgundy serves as a fixative of the preferred time-line. Over its 600,000 or more words of continuously intensifying narrative, Ash demonstrates, as do few contemporary texts, that extremely long novels only tend to work when their focus is unwavering. Ilario: The Lion's Eye: The First History (2006; vt in 2vols as Ilario: The Lion's Eye: The First History Book One 2007 US and Ilario: The Stone Golem: The First History Book Two 2007), which is set in a cognate Parallel World, is less cumulatively impressive. The Black Opera (2012) is set in a fantasized Alternate History nineteenth century world where music (see Arts) literally shapes the world, and can therefore be used to literally invoke the Devil.

Two of Gentle's occasional singletons are of some interest: Grunts! (1992) is a spoof Military SF tale whose cast is comprised of fantasy creatures; 1610: A Sundial in a Grave (2003) sets a not entirely serious recasting of Isaac Asimov's Psychohistory into a swashbuckling Alternate History of early seventeenth-century Europe, with the historical Robert Fludd (1574-1637) playing (in part) Hari Seldon. But Gentle's strengths are, unusually, best deployed at great length; she is one of the few genuinely long-breathed writers in the fantastic. [JC]

see also: Gods and Demons; Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference; Pseudoscience; Shared Worlds.

Mary Rosalyn Gentle

born Eastbourne, Sussex: 29 March 1956




White Crow


individual titles


works as editor


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