This review contains spoilers.
There’s an uncomfortable moment early on in Jo Walton’s most-recent-but-one novel Lent when its protagonist, the Dominican monk Girolamo Savanorola (a real figure in Italian Renaissance politics), administers the last rites to Angelo, tutor to the children of a local member of the Medici family. Girolamo is “disgusted” to hear Angelo confess that he’s had sex with men; disgusted, the scene implies, in a way he wouldn’t have been had Angelo confessed multiple affairs with women. As a queer reader, that disgust is a visceral shock; it’s profoundly uncomfortable to encounter such views in a character generally portrayed as sympathetic, kind and liberal (for a monk).
The sense of discomfort this scene engenders illustrates what I was talking about earlier this week about anachronistic mindsets in historical fantasy (and non-speculative historical fiction too). One of the great strengths of Lent is that it enters wholeheartedly into the Renaissance mindset. Girolamo, head of his monastery and passionate ascetic, has the unique ability to see and banish demons, a fact everyone around him treats as largely unremarkable; because, from a Renaissance standpoint, demons are a fact of life, as indisputably real as Newtonian physics are today. It’s telling that I thought of the first half of Lent as basically a realist Renaissance novel; that’s how unremarkable the demons are.
Girolamo’s homophobia, discomfiting though it is, is part of this realism; it’s a sign of the novel’s willingness to commit fully to its premise. You can’t have the demons without the period’s concomitant horror of sensuality and sexuality; in fact it’s pretty clear that Walton’s demons, which all have huge genitalia or are covered in breasts, that sort of thing, are manifestations of that horror. Girolamo’s attitude towards queer sex isn’t one that Walton shares, but it’s key to understanding what kind of person he is and what sort of cultural context he operates in; in short it’s key to the effect the novel’s trying to achieve. It’s an indication that Walton isn’t afraid to make the reader uncomfortable, to encounter the past as another country; Lent is not a warm cosy bath of materialist historical fantasy we’re going to be allowed to sink into.
(I’m not saying here that all historical narratives about queer characters, real or imagined, need to be relentless rosters of homophobia, nor that queer-friendly attitudes are always unrealistic when projected into the past; I’m simply trying to illustrate here how this specific choice works in this specific text.)
Why is this moral and cultural realism important? About halfway through the novel the text becomes significantly more metaphysical than we’ve been led to expect (even given we are reading about a deeply learned monk in a world full of demons): after a brief time running Florence as a godly republic, Girolamo is executed and ends up not in heaven but in hell. He is himself a demon, doomed to return over and over again to Earth for his torture. From that point on we might expect the text to ask us whether he can be redeemed, and how; and it does, to an extent. But a more pressing concern for Girolamo – who is the only person who realises that his life is looping again and again – is often how he can best help his friends and serve God, given the incontrovertible fact of his damnation. The philosophical argument Walton embarks upon in this second half of the book – an argument that touches on questions of responsibility, duty and sacrifice – is profoundly rooted in Renaissance mores and understandings of the world; it relies on our acceptance, even if only hypothetically, of truths about the world that were seen as incontrovertible in the Renaissance period. It’s an argument that would be impossible, or at least very difficult, to make in its current form without that framing.
It’s clear that Walton’s main interest here lies in structure and theme, not prose; the novel isn’t badly written, but nor is the writing particularly revelatory, and in fact it’s occasionally downright clumsy. Being someone who reads for structure and theme rather than prose, I can forgive that for the novel’s genuine, and mostly successful, attempts at estrangement; it’s a serious piece of work that’s doing things not many SFF novels will even try (and here I bemoan once again the lack of speculative novels that look seriously at religion and faith). I don’t think I would like everything I read to be like Lent; but I am glad to have read it.