"On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin's bullets lodged in her abdomen and chest. (...) her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere. For the Faery Queen, Elisabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more..."
Keith Roberts' premise is the murder of Queen Elisabeth I in 1588, years before her actual death. In its aftermath, Spain defeats the British fleet and conquers most of Europe. The Roman Catholic Church seizes power, Protestantism is destroyed and the Inquisition reaches a terrifying climax.
The story starts in 1968 - or actually stories, as this is what is called a fix-up novel: a novel which is built up out of a set of interlinked short stories. We follow different characters in a radically different world, that overall seems to have reverted to the Middle Ages, and where the most advanced technology is the steam engine.
The structure of the novel is very original. The title refers to a medieval dance which had six parts and a coda, and the novel is structured in the same way: it has six parts (called 'measures' here) and ends with a coda. As a reader, you actually dance around some ideas and try to make sense of it all.
Although I do appreciate what Roberts was trying to do here, I did have a hard time getting into the book. Some of the stories were actually really good, and even very moving. But because of the fragmentary nature of the book, it couldn't hold my attention all the time. I was often wondering what was going on and what the actual point of the whole thing was. Sure, as you read along, it becomes clear that this is the purpose of the book - the reader has to do a lot of the filling-in by himself. Maybe I'll re-read the book with this in mind, because I do think it's a fascinating idea. But not right now.
Author: Keith Roberts
Publisher: Gollancz, London
Year: 2003 (orig. 1968)
Number of pages: 279 p.