In my recent review of The Owl Service by Alan Garner, I mentioned that the atmosphere created in the story reminded me of some of Robert Holdstock's work, and also (if a long-distant memory served me correctly) Pavane by Keith Roberts. Not having read this for some four decades, I decided to pull it off the shelf. This review contains some spoilers.
Pavane is an alternative history novel with the PoD (Point of Departure) being the assassination of Queen Elizabeth 1st in 1588, resulting in the subsequent success of the Spanish Armada's invasion of Britain, and with the long-term consequence of a Roman Catholic western world. And it's nothing like the present-day Catholic Church either; without any non-comformist countries to act as a safe haven, all attempts at reform had been suppressed, leaving a decidedly medieval kind of Church Militant strongly in control, in a very different 1960s.
After a brief scene-setting prologue, the novel consists of five linked but self-contained novelettes (originally published separately) and a final short story, all set in Dorset in south-west England, each exploring a different aspect of this world. Technology is far more primitive, because nothing new can be introduced without the formal approval of the Church, which first ensures that it does not conflict in any way with Catholic doctrine. Much of Dorset is still wild heathland, not safe to travel over.
The first story is The Lady Margaret, the title referring to a powerful steam traction engine of that name, used to pull road trains of goods wagons – the main method of commercial land transportation. Jesse, the young driver who has recently inherited the company from his late father, is about to set out on a round trip on a winter evening, braving the routiers (highwaymen) in search of both trade and romance. The world of traction engines is powerfully evoked, which would not have been a challenge for the author as many of these engines still survive and can be seen steaming every year at fairs around England.
The Signaller concerns a young boy who is fascinated by the towers and moving arms of the semaphore stations which handle all of the fast communications across the country. The story follows his life as he passes through training until he has his own small station to look after. Again, the author takes the reader into the signaller's world, their practices and procedures, in loving detail. Such semaphore systems used to exist in England, before being replaced by telegraphy. This story also features the concept of the Old Ones, the people of pre-Christian England who are still rumoured to survive in remote parts of the land, and it is in this that the similarity to Holdstock and Garner is most obvious.
The third story concerns Brother John, a monk who is a skilled illustrator. He is sent to Dover to draw the proceedings at the Court of Spiritual Welfare, previously known as the Inquisition. The horrors of the torture he witnesses there cost him his sanity and he leads a revolt against the Church.
Lords and Ladies takes us back to the Jesse, much later in his life, by which time he is immensely wealthy as he controls the steam traction trade throughout south-west England. His young niece Margaret meets Robert, heir to the Lordship of Purbeck and the story concerns the developing relationship between them in his home at Corfe Castle.
The fifth novella, Corfe Gate, is set a generation later and features the Lady Eleanor, the young mistress of Corfe Castle and the daughter of Lord Robert, who is driven to defy the power of the Church and inspires another rebellion against it. This also has the final appearance of the old steam engine, The Lady Margaret.
The book finishes with a short story, Coda, which jumps yet another generation to a time after the control of the Catholic Church has finally collapsed, releasing a torrent of technology which had been developed but stored away unused, the world now looking much more like our own. A young man visits the now ruined Corfe Castle (just as it actually is today) to learn how he is associated with the place. Another strongly atmospheric story, although I couldn't help thinking that such dramatic changes would surely have taken longer than a generation.
Pavane provides a fascinating and carefully thought-through insight into a strange and forbidding alternative world. The stories are beautifully written and powerfully evocative, giving the reader a strong impression of what it might be like to live in such a world. It is something of a dystopia, however, so don't expect happy endings.
I did a bit more research into Keith Roberts, since this book is the only work by him I have come across. Wiki informs me that he wrote many stories published between 1964 and 2000, the year that he died. Pavane does however seem to be his masterpiece, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction stating it is "now credited as the finest of all 'alternate histories'." Other opinions included "A rare and beautiful novel" (Brian Aldiss); "A tapestry of a book, a marvel of story-telling" (Algis Budrys); and "An imaginative tour de force" (Edmund Cooper). I wouldn't disagree with any of these, and am adding the book to my list of favourite SFF novels.