Do you enjoy the notion of alternative history, and the question of "What if?" Pasquale's Angel is a deftly written book by Paul J. McAuley, with a setting of renaissance Italy. Character development is strong, and the story is well told - both the reviewer, D.C. Lawie and I agree on this. Click below to learn more about the book.Paul J. McAuley apparently made his first short story sale in the mid seventies to a magazine which immediately folded. He has been writing published science fiction for the last fifteen years, including many short stories and eight novels alongside regular reviews for magazines such as Interzone and Foundation. His success, including awards for three of his novels, has allowed him to switch from an academic career to full time writing. The scope and strength of his writing has been displayed through variation in subject matter and tone across his work.
In Pasquale's Angel, his fifth novel, McAuley's ability is such that he can carry off an alternate history of renaissance Italy with a light, sure touch. Like most "counterfactuals" he makes use of historical figures - Machiavelli is an investigative journalist, Lisa Giocondo is the lover of the painter Raphael. These are fully realised characters rather than the cheap name checks too common in alternate history. In fact, closer study of the historical period shows how well the author used the characters available and how accurately they have been drawn. Another distinction from many attempts at alternate history is the strength of the plotting, which has no reliance on comparison with our own history. Descriptive passages make no assumptions of the reader's knowledge either. It is made clear Michelangelo and Raphael are great artists and great rivals. In the course of the story, the reader learns about the mechanisms of renaissance art as well as achronic newspaper production.
The catalyst which leads to a changed reality is Leonardo da Vinci's decision to dedicate himself to engineering rather than art. The result is industrial revolution being folded into the already rich mixture of politics and machinations in the city state of Florence. This produces an environment where tossing a spent match leads naturally to a discussion on the fall of Lucifer and the possibility of Man's redemption, an environment which has room enough for action and for moments of contemplation.
The great Raphael is of Venice and arrives in Florence shortly before the Pope is due to resolve Rome's differences with the city. Pasquale is a country boy and a painter's apprentice, desirous of getting close to the famous painter when he is caught up in murder and intrigue. It is almost impossible to avoid describing the plot as Machiavellian, involving magicians, priests, riots and philosophy but the story also includes gunfights, stakeouts and chases in steam powered vehicles. At times there is a danger of losing track of who is doing what to whom and why but the ride is always enjoyable and the tangles mostly untie themselves.
Pasquale's Angel avoids the usual traps in alternate histories - pointlessly mixing periods and easy moralising by implicit or explicit comparison with our world. The premise leads plausibly to the technology available within the story. The characters, historically, were born into the dawn of a new age, so it seems reasonable that they should cope with change even on the scale presented. They are, generally, more interested in money and politics, in turning the new technology to their own advantage, than in the technology for itself. There may be a moral in this, but it is applicable to all human nature.
The storyline developed may seem thoroughly over the top but it is a large part of what makes the book work. McAuley makes excellent use of historical sources (from the age when the modern biography was invented) and mercilessly plunders technology from every page of da Vinci. This is a novel where entertainment is built up in layers of provocative ideas.
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