‘The Black Opera’ by Mary Gentle.
THE PROS: The story. It’s really more than enough for me. And the world. And her writing style. But let’s take them one at a time, I guess.
The World: Musicodramma—sung mass and opera—can cause miracles. Zombies and ghosts are real.
The Story: A librettist, fallen on hard times, gets an offer from King Ferdinand. He’s needed to write an opera. Not just any opera. This is a counter-opera. A secret society, the Prince’s Men, are putting together an opera to make Vesuvius blow and raise Satan, who they believe to be the only being that actually cares about Earth.
They track down a composer, enough singers, and the work crew. Then the main character, Conrad, gets a shock. The love of his life shows up. And she’s married to the composer. Things are tense, they get better, the whole company ends up living underground with armed guards to protect them from the Prince’s Men.
You find out later that the reason the counter-opera has been almost good, but not perfect is that the composer is also the composer for the Black Opera, the one designed to blow Vesuvius. And it gets worse. His wife is the leader of the Prince’s Men in Naples. And she’s the lead in the Black Opera. In life, she was a wonderful soprano. But, she’s one of the Returned Dead, which makes her voice all the better. She doesn’t have the same constraints.
I won’t ruin the end, but it all ties up very well, I can assure you of that much.
The Style: I don’t know what it is, but, somehow, it all comes as a shock. Like, everything. Gentle manages to bring you into a realistic world of backstage opera, complete with sniping and sleepless nights, and then just throws some hideous twist at you that forces you to keep turning the pages.
THE CONS: I’ll get right to it: the basic conventions. Grammar and sentence structure. Many times, I had absolutely no idea what she was actually trying to say. If the book hadn’t been so good, I would have put it down for that. But I can’t put all the blame on Gentle for that. Not at all. She, in theory, had an editor, as the book went through a publishing house. How did the editor not catch this? I don’t know.
Also, there was a scene that bothered me. ‘Time passed’ was, to itself, a scene. Which doesn’t make sense. A scene break is used to show that time passed in which nothing significant happened. No point in writing it out.
And then the end. The last ten chapters could have been cut to five, or even three. There were ten chapters after the climax. And some important things happened. But a lot of the walking away from the volcano could have been summed up, I think.
All in all? I’d say read it. Now. Go find a copy and just devour it. It overcame all of it’s issues to get a four star rating, in my book.