Song gone wrong

BLACK OPERA by Mary Gentle (Gollancz)

“One thing about good music,” mused Bob Marley, “when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

Actually, not, in the bel canto-era Naples of Mary Gentle’s latest fantasy. There, sublime singing can awaken earthly and unearthly powers, with cataclysmic results. So when a bunch of demon worshippers plots to sing in the Apocalypse, the king of the Two Sicilies insists reluctant atheist composer Conrad Scalese must create a musical antidote.

Musical comedy fans will recognise this plot as “let’s put on the show right here in the barn” (in this case, a warren of terrifying catacombs), with all the accompanying tension, pathos, romantic intrigue and backstage bitching. But Gentle’s great strength lies in teasing out ethical and gender ambiguity, so don’t expect stock characters or heart-warming chorus-line finales. Many of her cast are not what they seem and Conrad’s carefully planned antiphony produces an entirely unplanned conclusion.

The plot is intriguing, the world and its people convincing, and the whole intricate edifice rests on Gentle’s affectionate and meticulously researched understanding of the music.

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