Edition: Transworld, 1990
Review number: 603
Hermetic philosophy - that is, strictly speaking, following the ideas in the occult writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus - has played a role in some for the best novels of the second half of the twentieth century, including Lawrence Durrell's Avignon quintet and John Fowles' The Magus. This resurgence of interest is related to an increased, open, interest in the occult, exploited by figures such as Alastair Crowley. These things were generally kept hidden, and would not be considered appropriate subjects to write about - the major survival from the Renaissance interest in this kind of idea have been Masonic lodges. Fantasy and science fiction authors have also been fascinated, including Piers Anthony (the Tarot is a recurring theme in many of his better novels) and Robert Anton Wilson (whose Illuminatus trilogy must rank as one of the most paranoid collections of novels ever written).
All of the books that I have mentioned are set more or less in the real world. Mary Gentle is, I think, unique in creating a fantasy universe almost completely based on occult writing. The world on which the novel is set has humans and several alien races living on it, including the aristocratic Rats, though everything is subordinate to the thirty six Decans, incarnations of the controlling principles of the universe. The plot of the novel concerns complicated schemes among the Rats to persuade the Decans to give up their incarnation; being omniscient, the Decans know what is going on, but are manipulating events for their own amusement.
Most of the action in the book is magical rather than physical; it starts, for example, with seer The White Crow using her blood to write messages for adepts to read on the face of the full moon. Masonic ideas about proportion in architecture are extremely important. Much of the background is interesting, but as a novel Rats and Gargoyles has several major problems.
The most obvious of these is a consequence of the subject matter. Hermetic writings are by nature obscure, complex, and often incomprehensible. This makes a novel based entirely on them, particularly one where the reader is thrown in at the deep end as here, heavy and difficult to read. Too much space is given to baroque description, and the plot is not dramatic enough to grab the attention. The novels mentioned earlier handle this better because they are set in a more familiar background. By being an introduction to the unknown from the known, there is far less to take in all at once.
In addition, there are too many major characters in the novel for Gentle to make them individual; Rats and Gargoyles is an attempt at something rather more ambitious than she can pull off. My final verdict: intereesting, but decidedly flawed.