It’s been a while since Dreamsnake, but McIntyre becomes the sixth author to win a second Nebula for best novel (only LeGuin has more than two – she has four). This is a historical novel set in 1693 in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, but with one major sf element.
I’ve gone off on historical fantasy before (Gloriana, Dragon Waiting); in short, I love it in theory, but usually dislike it in practice. This novel represents one of my greatest pet peeves about historical fiction in general – characters with a modern mindset who condemn the prejudices of the past. That’s not to say that the prejudices of the past shouldn’t be depicted in historical fiction, but exempting a pet character from said prejudices damages believability and precludes subtlety. Here we have the beautiful, young Marie-Josephe de la Croix, who hates the racism and sexism she sees at court, is sensitive to the idea that an animal may be sentient, openly questions the Pope and King, corresponds with Newton and van Leeuwenhoek, falls in love with an atheist dwarf, and frees her Turkish slave. Her one limitation is a prudishness instilled in her at a convent, which she overcomes fairly quickly and easily. She has a thoroughly late-twentieth-century mind and thus sticks out in McIntyre’s seventeenth-century setting like a sore thumb. I much prefer to see the author let the attitudes of the past speak for themselves – show us the unfairness of sexism and racism, don’t invent an implausible character to tell us about them.
I never really got over this aspect of the novel, and it didn’t help that I was never that drawn into the plot. Marie-Josephe’s brother Yves, a Jesuit priest, discovers a twin-tailed sea monster that seems to be part manatee, part mermaid. He brings it to Versailles in the hopes that the Sun King can gain immortality by eating its flesh. Marie-Josephe befriends the creature and learns to communicate with it through song. Then we get several extended scenes where she pleads that others accept the “sea woman” as an equal and free her. Nobody listens because she’s a girl. It’s all so unfair! But, she manages to convince the right people, and we get a very unlikely happy ending out of the whole affair. We get some fairly typical courtly intrigue (hint: everyone is a bastard, and everyone is related), and some fairly dull descriptions along the way. There were amazing, “Renaissance Women” in reality (Suor Maria Celeste, Sor Juana de la Cruz, Anne Bradstreet), but no man or woman of the time was as perfect and forward thinking as Marie-Josephe. We’ll see a much better-executed version of this concept with Eliza in Stephenson’s Baroque cycle towards the end of the year.
There’s potential here. I liked Dreamsnake well enough, and McIntyre is a decent writer with some good ideas. The “sea woman” is the one really compelling part of the book. But, her approach to the historical material and overly-perfect protagonist just turned me off. It’s not terrible, but it was not for me.