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Pasquale's Angel by Paul J McAuley (Orion Millennium, £5.99, 384 pages, paperback; first published 1994, this edition 30 September 1999.)

Presciently reminiscent of Michael Swanwick's Jack Faust, Pasquale's Angel is just as good as the better known book.

Set in a Florence of 1518, Leonardo da Vinci apparently long ago abandoned a promising career as an artist in favour of engineering, a radical career shift which has been such an astonishing success that the early arrival of the Industrial Revolution has quite unexpectedly overshadowed the flowering of the Renaissance. Florence's population of artists are consequently now mostly employed in the production of "stiffeners" and as glorified interior designers - with the primary exception of painting superstars Michelangelo and Raphael (one of whom has embraced the new commercialism while the other rejects it). One of the city's many disenfranchised painters, the eponymous Pasquale, who dreams of painting an angel, becomes caught up in a mysterious but politically sensitive murder investigation which leads him deeper and deeper into a world awash with plots, plots with motives deeper than ever suspected.

There are appearances by all the famous players of the times; we meet Copernicus, Michelangelo, Raphael, Machiavelli, and the masses of period detail needed to depict a believable Florence of 500-odd years ago, albeit with steam-powered vaporetti, put me off ever trying to write an alt-history novel for myself!

In juxtaposition to Swanwick's book (which I can't help but compare with McAuley's) Pasquale's Angel is something of a tour de force. The unfolding of the plot, a solid political thriller/whodunit, is in contrast to the all-encompassing moral message of Jack Faust. But Swanwick had a very different agenda in retelling Goethe's fable of the ever-fascinating Faust. McAuley isn't making any judgements regarding the uses of technology. It is both good and bad, as ambiguous as humanity itself. Even the ingenious and dramatic improvements in weaponry can have beneficial effects, particularly in that the more civilised Florentines were fortunate enough to gain access to them first. The relationship of Florence with the Aztec empires stands in stark contrast with what actually happened in our timeline and one of the characters even comments how fortunate the Aztecs were that a Florentine expedition beat Cortés there.

The book's conclusion is a classic example of postmodern narrative closure, about which I'll say no more, not wishing to give the game away. But having recently reviewed another of McAuley's books I'm beginning to suspect fuzzy non-endings are an idiosyncrasy of his brand of very British '90s sf in which nothing is cut and dried, black and white, good and evil. Things simply are. It is only upon encountering us that they are assigned qualities other than those of simple empirical observation, and even these are contingent upon individual observer(s).

I'm not aware that Pasquale's Angel had any profound intrinsic truth. What I did like was the ambiguity of style, with the implications this had for the narrative as a whole. Sorry, am I rambling? Well, I almost forgot, it's also a damn fine story: fast-moving, compelling, complex and human, for which alone I would highly recommend it.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 4 December 1999