The Black Opera, Mary Gentle's first novel in six years, raises a rather vexing question: how can a novel that features volcanoes, zombies, ghosts, love triangles, secret societies, the Inquisition, women dressing as men in order to pursue traditionally masculine professions, a "let's put on a show" plot in which the lives of many thousands depend on the enterprise's success, a guest appearance by Napoleon Bonaparte, and a hell of a lot of opera, be so singularly devoid of tension?
Set in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (which comprised the southern half of Italy and the island of Sicily before Italian unification) in the first half of the nineteenth century, The Black Opera most closely resembles, in the contours of its plot, Gentle's 1610: A Sundial in a Grave (2003). Like that novel, it is an alternate history whose hero finds himself in the crossfires of an all-seeing, all-knowing secret society poised to substantially alter human history (as they see it, for the better, albeit with significant collateral damage). And as in 1610, that struggle is filtered through and paralleled with the hero's difficulties in accepting that they are drawn towards a socially unacceptable relationship—dominant/submissive sex in 1610; polyamory in The Black Opera. Our hero this time is Conrad Scalese, an up-and-coming librettist in the growing field of bel canto opera, who is commissioned by Ferdinand II, king of the two Sicilies, to write an opera that will prevent a miracle. In the world of the novel, the sung Catholic mass has the power to create miracles—spontaneous healing, the raising (and banishing) of the dead, and the anomalous behavior of the forces of nature—but as opera has grown more popular, it too has begun causing miracles. Conrad's most recent production caused lightning to strike the theater where it was staged, which—along with his stated atheism—brings down upon him wrath of the Inquisition. Ferdinand, however, forestalls that arrest, and tasks Conrad with creating an opera that will counteract the one being staged by the secret society The Prince's Men, who hope to make a blood sacrifice massive enough to enshrine the devil in God's place—by causing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Complicating matters is the fact that Conrad's would-be collaborator on the opera, the dour aristocrat and drawing room composer Roberto Capiraso, is married to Leonora, the woman whose disappearance, after a year-long affair, continues to haunt Conrad six years later.
At its heart, The Black Opera is a novel about capturing your audience. If Conrad's white opera can more deeply engage the emotions of its audience than the black opera, the world will be saved; if not, then Vesuvius erupts. Some of the novel's best moments involve Conrad trying to find just the right story with which to win the audience's affections, breaking it down in conversation with his collaborator, his cast, and his friends in order to work out how to best develop its themes and compel the audience's emotions and affections (it's no accident that, though the topic of her novel is opera, Gentle has chosen as her protagonist the librettist rather than the composer). Predictably, the opera's themes echo in the events of the production—enmity between the main female characters is reflected in squabbles between the prima and seconda donna, and as well as the love triangle between Conrad, Roberto, and Leonora, Conrad's sister Isaura (who prefers to dress as a man and go by Paolo) attracts both his servant Tullio and the local policeman Luigi (in case we had missed these parallels, Gentle has Conrad muse that "a libretto is always a story that the poet tells himself, only to be truly read after it's finished and other people sing it back to him" p. 427). And, of course, the novel's central plot, a tale of conspiracies, devil-worshipping, and volcanic eruption, is itself fit for an opera.
All of which is to say that Gentle has left herself wide open to a comparison with her own main character, and that comparison is not kind. The Black Opera has not one, but three crackerjack premises—the conspiracy to erupt Vesuvius, the "let's put on a show" plot, and the love triangle—and yet in Gentle's hands, all three are underpowered and slack, and none possesses the power to enthrall and enrapture, the magic of Conrad's opera. Rather than weaving into and reinforcing each other, the three plot strands undermine one another, one's prominence causing the other two to fade into the background and seem less important and less vital when it's their turn to take the lead.
This is, first and foremost, a problem of pacing. Gentle takes forever to set her story in motion, bogging down in nearly 80 pages of exposition, as Conrad first establishes his free-thinker credential against the Inquisition ("Knowledge is dignity! That's what you'd deny us! You'd rather we go to your god in our thousands from malarial fever in Naples, say, than have one Natural Philosopher use observation and experiment!" p. 18), and is then brought before Ferdinand II, who reveals the history and purpose of The Prince's Men in a long infodump of a conversation that Gentle makes even longer by having Ferdinand repeatedly tell Conrad that he is about to tell him something important, then pause to shift location, or stare pensively at the scenery. And even once Conrad is released from Ferdinand's presence and begins work on the opera, it takes quite a bit longer for the rest of the cast—including the two remaining points of the novel's central love triangle—to assemble.
The result is a novel in which the reader is repeatedly lulled into the false belief that now, finally, the preamble has ended and the story proper can begin. In fact, that moment doesn't truly arrive until midway into The Black Opera, whose entire second half takes place over the course of a single day, the day of the two operas' performance. This has the effect of making the The Black Opera's first half seem, retroactively, like scene-setting, but even as one reads these chapters for the first time there is a sense that Gentle's heart isn’t in them, that she is simply laying a foundation and can't be bothered to do much in it. That the most interesting aspects of the first half of the novel are its insights into the workings of nineteenth century Italian opera, with such details as "Sopranos would travel with their mothers in tow—and nothing is quite so terrifying as the mother of a seconda donna who thinks she ought to be the mother of a prima donna" (p. 80), is a sign of trouble—it implies that our time might have been better spent reading a non-fiction book about this setting—especially as Gentle mentions these details as asides, and doesn't work them closely enough into either the conspiracy plot (which mostly fades into the background as the opera's production ramps up, losing much of its urgency) or the love triangle.
If The Black Opera is a novel scuttled by the gap between what Gentle expects us to feel in response to her story and what's actually earned by what she’s written, the love triangle is where that gap is widest and most damaging. For a sizable portion of the novel, Gentle pours most of the narrative's energies into Conrad's mingled longing for and anger at Leonora, his jealousy of Roberto, and Roberto's resentment of him. This is a problematic choice in itself—are we really supposed to care who Leonora ends up with when so many lives are at stake?—and it's made even more so when Conrad and Roberto allow their rivalry to endanger the opera's progress, as when Roberto allows Conrad to be carted off to debtor's prison in order to keep him away from Leonora. Petty and unappealing as this action is, however, it is at least a believable one, and believably sells the depth of Roberto's jealousy towards Conrad. What soon becomes clear, and what finally renders this plot strand inert, is that the—decidedly unromantic—rivalry-cum-friendship (and then -cum-rivalry again) between Conrad and Roberto is the only persuasive side of this triangle.
Despite their increasingly heated protestations of ardor, neither Conrad nor Roberto's love for Leonora is convincing enough to power the novel, much less make us wish for a happy ending for either one of them. This is largely because Leonora spends the first half of the novel as a cipher, who is rarely present on the page except through Conrad's rapturous musings about her. The revelation that she is a zombie—one of the Returned Dead, called back to life by the sung mass—initially seems like an intriguing wrinkle, but death appears to have had no effect on Leonora's personality (what little of it we get to see) or outlook, and its sole importance to the plot is that it has given her an inhumanly versatile singing voice. Despite being dead, Leonora slots very easily into a common, and not very appealing, cliché—the woman who left her poor lover for a rich man and now laments her lost love, though not to the extent of actually leaving her husband. Her behavior seems deliberately opaque, even teasing, protesting to Conrad that she loves Roberto, but continuing to arouse Roberto's jealousy by meeting with Conrad in compromising situations.
It's therefore something of relief when it's revealed, at The Black Opera's midpoint, that Leonora is one—indeed the leader—of The Prince's Men, and that her coy games with Roberto and Conrad were intended to stall and sabotage the counter-opera. For a while, Gentle seems to have broken free of clichés, exposed the emptiness of the conventions that are Conrad's stock in trade as a librettist without relinquishing the equally operatic story of her novel. But instead of using the revelation of Leonora's villainy to validate the dissonance of the earlier parts of the novel, Gentle compounds that dissonance. The love triangle persists, even as Leonora's crimes pile up. We, apparently, are intended to find that persistence romantic, to not only root for these three crazy kids to make it work, but to share Roberto and Conrad's conviction that Leonora is a remarkable woman, even though Gentle can't come up with a persuasive motivation for Leonora's monstrous actions. By the end of the novel—at which point Leonora is a mass murderer—Gentle has turned the relationship into a comedy. It's not possessiveness and sexual jealousy that are keeping Roberto and Conrad (who are entirely untroubled by their beloved's crimes) from accepting the possibility of a polyamorous relationship, but the fact that neither of them, nor Leonora, have ever heard of such a thing (even though all three are part of the bohemian world of opera). When a minor character mentions that he has three wives, all difficulties are immediately resolved. (This is also to ignore the fact that Conrad and Roberto have no interest in being married to one another or even sharing a wife. They accept this solution because they want to be with Leonora, who refuses to choose between them—behavior that, I suspect, would be less sympathetic or romantic if the genders of all three characters were reversed.)
The resolution of the warring operas plot, sadly, does little to compensate for the unconvincing and unsatisfying love triangle. The second half of The Black Opera is more eventful than its first, and features many scenes of inventive death and destruction, but once again the best parts of the novel are its depiction of the process of creating an opera and its effect—as when Conrad realizes that Leonora's ethereal voice can be countered with polyphony, the emotional effect of collaboration triumphing over technical perfection. The action, meanwhile, is bitty and once again drawn out and poorly paced, frequently interrupted by scenes of travel that do little to ramp up the story's tension. The novel's climax is a long, talky scene that tries to make sense of the muddled and underserved themes that have underpinned it—the poorly explained motivations of The Prince's Men, and the reason that musical miracles occur—but only serves to make Leonora seem like even more of a cliché ("you can't make enough of an afterlife for us, to forget how much pain and grief and suffering we go through here?" she demands of the being roused by her opera, p. 438), and Conrad somewhat unappealing.
That Conrad is an atheist in a world in which the dead walk, sickness is healed by prayer, and music causes volcanic eruptions, is fruitful ground, but Gentle doesn't seem interested in investigating what atheism would mean in such a world, and how it differs from atheism in our world. She insists on treating Conrad like a rational empiricist. This sometimes has the effect of making his atheism seem like little more than semantics—"If I see unscientific alterations to the world, that doesn't mean I'm going to label them 'miracles'!" (p. 66)—but towards the end of the novel, it simply makes Conrad appear smug and self-satisfied. Though lip service is paid to the notion that the novel's miracles have scientific explanations—"I do deny that this has anything to do with a Deity!" Conrad tells a priest who has healed his migraine. "Nothing about it demands a god in explanation. Why aren't these things regarded as a part of the natural world which we don't yet understand?" (pp. 30-1)—there's precious little scientific investigation in the novel's climax, which involves Conrad spinning outlandish, and rather fuzzy-wuzzy, theories out of thin air (in response to which, the representatives of the Inquisition present shout out "blasphemy!" and "heresy!" at regular intervals), and having them confirmed by an omnipotent being—the voice of the author standing in for the voice of god.
When he comes to write the end of his opera, Conrad is chastised by the cast for initially creating an unsatisfying, unearned happy ending. A similar criticism might well be directed at Gentle. The ending of The Black Opera asks us to be happy at the triumphs of unpleasant, self-righteous, in one case outright villainous characters, to cheer for the success of a thoroughly unconvincing romance, and to treat authorial fiat as the triumph of rationalism and science. Which is, of course, the reason that The Black Opera is so lacking in tension—because Gentle has failed so completely to get us on her characters' side. The same magic that both the black and white operas achieve so effortlessly—the capture of their audience and its affections—is sadly lacking from this novel.
Abigail Nussbaum (email@example.com) is the Strange Horizons reviews editor. Her work has also appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, Foundation, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.
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