21 March 2010
Beth Bernobich’s exciting fantasy novella Ars Memoriae has been going on a blog tour, and turned up in Hampshire courtesy of Old Kitty’s blog. Yum.
Ars Memoriae, a chapbook from the independent UK publishers PS, is set in an alternate 19th century where the overstretched empire of Eireann is racking its brains to cope with the Anglian nationalist problem, rather than the other way around. Eireann, in this book, is mainly a framing device to send a traveller into the Balkans, where Austria is rubbing up against Serbian nationalist ambitions. Much of the action takes place in Montenegro, where police commander Adrian Dee must track down an agent who holds the key to a nefarious Austrian-Anglian scheme…
A light touch of steampunk ends up propelling the plot, but otherwise hovers over Bernobich’s continent like a patient balloon, waiting for the characters to step in. The Austrian/Serbian/Montenegrin politics also hang together well. (Many readers might not care, but I stubbornly do.) We don’t hear much about internal structures in Austria, but the setup in Montenegro, with opposing factions inclining towards Austria or Serbia, echoes real-life Montenegrin political struggles of the time, and Bernobich has found a nicely contemporary solution for naming the local language.
PS may be doing the book a disservice by selling it as ‘an alternate Earth of Ruritanian atmosphere’. (That’s not just because of its Balkan setting, I hope.) Ars Memoriae writes itself into the tradition of Edwardian spy stories, with officers of the law racing to catch anarchists before they can let off their infernal devices. Dee’s personal traumas, on the other hand, are relentlessly of our age: he’s tormented by hallucinations of his investigation into a murder that could never have taken place, and he approaches Eireann’s courtiers through an understated fug of modernist depression.
The trouble is, there’s just not enough of it. In general, I’m left wanting to know much more about the continent, more hints about how it turned out that way, more texture, more of a sense of how this Europe’s power relates to the rest of the world… and in particular, Dee’s memories of the murder don’t seem deep enough. We see Dee talking to a psychiatrist (if I can use that word – how far has this world come in terms of theories of the mind?) in the first chapter and visiting a location associated with the memory, but it’s still not rich enough for the impact it’s all meant to have had on him. We get no more than hints at the connection between his hallucinations and a series of strange physics experiments in Eireann, meaning that the novella’s not quite self-contained…
…but, according to the author’s website, there will be a forthcoming novel tying together Ars Memoriae and her
other Eireann stories. So that’s all right.
Apparently I’m also supposed to post a photo of the book in its temporary home. So here it is, in the least cluttered place in the house:
And now for housekeeping: if you want to review the book, let me know a contact email and I’ll arrange to post it on. Alternatively, I’ll send it back up the chain to Old Kitty if there are no takers here…