L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

20 April 2007 Blog Home : April 2007 : Permalink

Lucy's Blade by John Lambshead

Baen have just released Lucy's Blade, a delightful first novel by one Dr John Lambshead, a scientist at the Natural History Museum who specalizes in nemoatodes. Although a fantasy about nematodes would certainly be unique and could possibly be interesting it was, I suspect, a good idea to look for a different subject and he has managed to avoid mention of lower invertebrates in this novel, which is mostly an Elizabethan fantasy. I'll explain why I say mostly later, suffice it to say that this book is one that I have greatly enjoyed (re)reading and one that appeals on many levels despite ploughing through the well turned soil of Elizabethan England.

I have no idea how many stories have been set in Elizabethan England, from historical novels to romances to fantasies of one sort or another. Indeed a moment of thought allows me to think of at least three in my own library: Ill Met by Moonlight, part of a Baen series by Mercedes Lackey and Roberta Gellis; the other Ill Met by Moonlight (by Baen author Sarah Hoyt) and the short story by Mary Jo Beverley in Irresistible Forces. Many of them involve the same characters, Dr Dee the scholar/magician/mathematician, Queen Elizabeth, Francis Walsingham the spy master, De Vere the Earl of Oxford, Drake, Hawkins and so on. Indeed when I read the first chapter of Dr Lambshead's book I felt a moment of fear that this was going to be like Ms Beverley's tale - one that I have to admit failed to grip - as it also started off with Dr Dee, but fortunately Lucy's Blade turned a very different furrow, despite also being a romantic novel set in Elzabethan England and containing magic.

So why do I say mostly an Elizabethan fantasy? The first thing is that, like Ringo's There Will Be Dragons series, this is fantasy with a sorta scientific background. The second is that he wraps the mostly historical story with a bit in the far future (the SF part) and another in the present giving us a fun bit of urban fantasy action adventure complete with vampires (in fact the vampire from his JBU short story) as well as the Tudor derring do. This sort of double wrapper is unique in my experience and great fun.

The tale itself is historically reasonably accurate. There is of course a certain amount of artistic license and occasional errors slip in (one barfly noted that a hymn used at one point turns out to have been written in about 1850) but they aren't major and some of the anecdotes such as Queen Elizabeth's humiliation of Oxford - "I have quite forgot the fart" - have a long historical provenance even if some spoilsports think they didn't happen. One very nice thing is that there are some excellent world-building bits where the protagonists do things that don't necessarily help the plot along but which do allow the author to describe, say, bits of Elizabethan London (and environs) without making it into a laboured infodump - he has clearly taken on board "show not tell" and all those other rules for good wrting. Sometimes these diversions also act as red herrings as to things that might turn out to be important some time later but actually turn out not to be. They are also frequently amusing

"The meal was washed down with ale from a wooden mug. No one but the desperate drank water in England. The poor drank water and died of typhoid. The last administration in England that had delivered clean water supplies to the cities had owed their allegiance to Caesar."

There are in fact any number of amusing quips and throwaway lines. The modern era piece has, for example, a very nice dig at our ZANU Labour masters and their fantastically successful educational policies:

"No offence, Alice, but why you? You're a history lecturer for London University, not Emma Peel."

"I wish I was back at Royal Holloway College right now," Alice said, with feeling. When she was not attempting to drum knowledge into sprawled ranks of hungover undergraduates, she spent her quality time in the university library researching her next book.

"So why aren't you?" asked Hammond.

"I have generally found it politic to obey smartly when the Commission makes a polite request. Otherwise, my research funds could suddenly dry up and I might find myself assigned to teaching Media Studies students how to use joined-up writing."

All in all this is a fun read. Lots of action, lots of wry comments, interesting plot twists. And the odd comment to remind you that England under the first Elizabeth was very different to that under the second. No it probably isn't high literature, no it doesn't shew great and hitherto unknown insight into the human condition. But it is the sort of book that gets reread when you want a light-hearted romp and not something angsty or dystopian. Finally, although it can clearly be extended, it doesn't cry out for "sequel" which only means I want some sequels even more.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin