Pavane is innovative alternative history. Review by S.K. Slevinski
In Pavane Keith Roberts tells an ambitious story about an alternate twentieth century, but it ultimately struck me as too ambitious.
This novel is hailed by many as a classic of the alternate history genre. Indeed, its premise is intriguing. The book posits a twentieth century that is not far removed from the Middle Ages. What's different? Well, for starters, Queen Elizabeth was assassinated back in the sixteenth century and the Spanish Armada was a success. As a result, the Catholic Church is still an overarching law-making institution come the twentieth century. Fearful of technology, the Pope issues proclamations limiting forward progress to the steam engine and basic radio. This book follows the lives of several characters in this alternate twentieth century.
This book is most certainly character-based. I must respect it in that measure. I should warn the reader, I am hardly ever satisfied by alternate history novels, and this one especially left me feeling off-kilter. The various chapters detail the lives of different characters, giving us readers a broader scope of this alternate landscape. The book is character-focused in a traditional literary manner, detailing everyday conflicts and trials. This was where the tension came for me. With the characters holding such importance for the page-to-page action, why such a complex speculative setting? In order to do justice to the milieu, Roberts visits several different character points of view throughout this book, as I said. As a result, I felt the chapters read more like a series of short stories. Mostly, I felt unsatisfied by the execution of the concept. With an alternate history concept so striking and intriguing, it is difficult to pay off, especially when the stories of everyday people take center stage—as they should. First off, some of the details perplexed me. I was willing to believe that there are still Chanel cosmetics in this alternate twentieth century, though its mention did raise questions—albeit momentarily. Later in the book, however, a piece of art is described as being from the 'Renaissance' without future explanation. In a twentieth century where the Catholic Church is still a world-wide (or at least, western civilization-wide) lawmaking body, did the Protestant Reformation happen? And if there was no Protestant Reformation, to what extent was there a Renaissance? These may seem like small details, but they feed into my general dissatisfaction with these sorts of alternate history tales. Rewriting history is an awfully large task, and I applaud Keith Roberts for attempting to do so through a character-centered novel, but for my tastes the concept was simply too large for a book under 300 pages.
This book is generally well-written, and certainly worth reading. At the very least, I found it thought provoking, and it is a high literary quality too rarely seen in alternative reality genres.
S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.