To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about Gentle’s novel, but I’ll give it my best try.
The novel is set in the 19th Century, during the Inquisition period in Italy. The protagonist, Conrad Scalese, is an atheist asked by the King to create an opera. Why does the opera need to be created? Because a conspiratorial group is going to do something to threaten the whole world, and only an opera that can create a miracle can stop it.
Now obviously a main plot like this is going to sound intriguing, and the amount of questions it can raise might be numerous, but I won’t give too much more than that. There is a romantic subplot involved that to me kind of reflects the drama of operas, and so I am hoping this is what Gentle was going for. Overall, the plot was worthwhile and the writing is solid. Incredibly solid. You feel like you are then and the tension it creates between religion and atheism is well written. The fact that music itself is given magical qualities really helps create an extra element to this tension. To me, this was actually the most intriguing part of the novel, and why I wanted to read it in the first place. Ultimately, I don’t think I was disappointed by this element at all.
All the characters are realistic and well-rounded. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly weak-minded, they all had very strong personalities and were individualized rather well. Even the secondary characters worked really well and were able to hold their own, though I didn’t always know or see as much of them as I would have like. Given that this book is rather long (or felt rather long in any case), Gentle has enough room to develop her characters well.
So I will make a point about pace at this point. The book did feel slow and rather long to me. It took a while for me to finish. It wasn’t that things didn’t happen that I wasn’t invested in, but these came in small moments of the book and I had to wait a while for them. This could be because Gentle is writing about opera and creating opera. While I enjoy opera, there is definitely less involvement from me in reading about it, rather than just getting to watch it unfold. This is what the book is essentially about in terms of opera: what it brings out of the performers and the audience involved. Not to mention how it is created. But it was much harder for me to be involved in this technical and emotional side to opera when I was only reading it and creating a distance from it.
It’s this that makes me struggle to truly understand how I feel about this novel. Was the plot alone worth it for me? I don't know. I also don’t know who I would recommend this book for. If you like history (and this is a type of alternate history, as Gentle remarks herself in the author’s note), then give it a shot. If you don’t have a lot of patience, maybe don’t pick this book up as you might find it a little wordy and lengthy. But if you do endure, I hope that you like it. The premise and the tensions are worth enduring for.