Rats and Gargoyles/The Architecture of Desire Analysis
by Mary Gentle

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Rats and Gargoyles/The Architecture of Desire Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Set in an alternative past that mixes alchemy, magia, and the beginnings of technology such as airship travel, analytical engineers, and neo-classical architectural concepts, Mary Gentle’s two novels chronicle major and minor adventures of an unlikely pair of lovers: the scholar-soldier, master physician, and magus White Crow and her tall, large, brilliant husband, Lord Architect Causabon. Both are members of an Invisible College of scholar-soldiers reminiscent of the Masons. The two characters also appear in two short stories, “Beggars in Satin” and “The Knot Garden,” published in the anthology Scholars and Soldiers (1989). The setting of both novels, which mixes magic and technology, has internal consistencies and shows the author’s background in seventeenth century studies through its parallels to actual historical events in England during the years surrounding the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the protectorate. Many of her key political and military figures, however, are female, such as the protectorate general, Olivia, and various scholar-soldiers, priests, and bishops.

Rats and Gargoyles and The Architecture of Desire are the fifth and sixth books by Gentle. They follow the better-known Orthe novels— Golden Witchbreed (1983) and Ancient Light (1987)—and a children’s book, her first published work, A Hawk in Silver (1977). Scholars and Soldiers (1989) is a collection of stories including two from the Rats and Gargoyles universe and several from the Orthe universe. In setting and character, these various novels and short stories have little in common, but Gentle’s plot and style are pervasive.

Both Rats and Gargoyles and The Architecture of Desire are characterized by a sense of the absurd in characterization and a staccato style that moves from scene to scene and character to character, showing many experiences of the same event. They also embody the multiple, interlocking plot structure found in Gentle’s other-world science fiction, Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. Gentle explains her elliptical style as the technique she uses to compress her story into a readable length. She depends on a carnivalesque attitude toward characters, who are articulated with little depth but with many allusions to their previous actions and future potential. The most flamboyantly drawn of these is the Lord Architect Causabon, who, while dressed lavishly in wigs, coats, and white shirts, is often depicted eating, sometimes food he pulls out of his pockets. He is large, sloppy, and brilliant, with hands that are likely to be dirty from food, stone dust, or engine oil. The second central character, White Crow, is moody, with atypical bisexual practices and vast magical powers, including shape-changing, that follow strict rules.

To give depth to the narrative of Rats and Gargoyles, which covers only a few days in a large Renaissance city, Gentle introduces groups of characters who later appear in combinations to carry out appointed deeds. The protagonist here, as in other works of fantasy and science fiction, is as much the setting as the sentient beings who inhabit it. This concept is behind Gentle’s invocations of the Masonic Invisible College, earth magic wielded by such individuals as the Bishop of Trees, other magias, and neo-classical concepts of the importance of geometry and proportion for creating harmonious cities and landscapes. Magic is both a normal part of events and an eruption into what otherwise might seem to be normal human events (even if sentient rats and gods are involved). The plots turn on questions of heroism, loyalty, love, and affection as much as on great and terrible deeds. The human proportions by which these deeds are measured may be what make Gentle’s books engaging enough so that they are reread, a practice almost essential to understanding them.