Pavane, by Keith Roberts, is a beautiful collection of six connected stories written in an alternate England where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated and Philip II won the throne of England. The Protestant Reformation never occurred and Europe, as well as the New World, fell under the control of the Pope. Now it’s 1968 and because the Roman Catholic Church has held back technological advances from the people, the English still live in a feudal society complete with candlelight, castles, moats, monasteries, and much superstition, though the Church has allowed some steam-powered vehicles and the use of semaphore telegraph lines for communication. The Church has electricity, people know they have been repressed, and there are rumors of revolution.
The title Pavane comes from the Spanish-style dance which has six steps and a coda. Likewise, after the short prologue, the book contains six stories and a coda. The stories span a couple of generations and occur in chronological order:
- “The Lady Margaret” — Here we meet Jesse Strange who carries freight on his steam engine, which is named “The Lady Margaret” after the barmaid he’s secretly in love with. On one of his business trips, during which he stops to see Margaret, he meets an old friend from college. On his way home, he’s attacked by bandits. Jesse, a competent and hard-working man, is the patriarch of the characters we’ll meet in the last two stories.
- “The Signaller” — Rafe, who is fascinated by the semaphore telegraph stations that span the country, has his wildest dreams fulfilled when he earns a spot as an apprentice in the Guild of Signallers. In this story we learn that the faeries are still active in England — the Roman Catholic Church has not been able to eradicate them.
- “The White Boat” — Fourteen-year-old Becky wants to be free and she thinks that the mysterious white boat she occasionally notices on the sea may be her ticket to a better life… until the Church notices it, too.
- “Brother John” — The monk Brother John is commissioned by the Inquisition to use his artistic talents to document tortures and confessions.
- “Lords and Ladies” —Jesse Strange, now a rich man, lies dying. As the priest intones last rites, Jesse’s niece Margaret remembers her recent humiliating experience with a young local lord and wonders if the faeries would treat her better than the priest’s god does.
- “Corfe Gate” — Lady Eleanor, daughter of Margaret in the previous story, defies the Church. Lord Henry, who represents the Pope in England, is sent to bring her down. With the help of Sir John, her seneschal, Eleanor prepares to stand firm. During her struggle, she suggests that history is like the pavane.
- In the Coda, Sir John’s son visits Corfe Gate decades later and reads a letter from his father who explains what happened after Eleanor’s revolt. Sir John’s justification of the Church’s actions seems odd and tacked-on. Or perhaps Keith Roberts was going for an A Canticle for Leibowitz-type feel. Either way, it leaves the reader scratching his head and wishing Roberts had just stopped after the last story.
Overall, Pavane is a beautifully written book with well-developed characters, skillful use of language, and vivid imagery — dark brooding castles, hulking gothic churches, powerful steam engines, lines of clacking semaphores, horrid tortures at the hands of the Inquisition. These images will stay with me.
I listened to the audio version of Pavane which was produced by Neil Gaiman Presents. Gaiman introduces the book and explains why he loves it and chose to add it to his audio line. The narration by Steven Crossley was excellent; I recommend this version.