I'm still trying to understand it. It changed the way I thought about science fiction. Divided into measures than hand the narrative from character to character, it's the story of another history, in which the Catholic Church ruled England some four hundred years after the assassination of Queen Elizabeth the First, suppressing various technologies. A world of steam road trains, hand presses, semaphore towers flashing signals across the land, the Inquisition at large, and revolution in the air. An English novel: its setting, in and around Corfe Castle, evoked with lambent touches and imbued with English weather and tough English romance; its stories told in full-on tough, tragic mode. Its characters may shape its history but are also shaped by it, hurt by, die by it. Unlike much of the stuff I was reading at the time, it presents no easy solutions; its world is not some puzzle easily solved but is as obdurate and hard-grained as the real world. There is human muddle, human suffering, human triumph.
It showed me, I think, that science fiction stories did not need to be peopled with lords and ladies (as Roberts titles one of his measures), child-messiahs, orphans who just happened to fit the lock of their world as if oiled. That stories could be about ordinary people, yet reflect larger movements, larger stories. It showed me that science fiction could aspire to the condition of literature. I taught me about the telling detail; about how to evoke an entire world by observation of the particularity of things. Roberts is very good at showing us how things work, by dropping in the exact image, and describing how people use them, and how they change the people who use them. There are DNA-traces of Pavane in most of my novels, but most especially, I guess, Pasquale's Angel and Fairyland. It's one of the books that makes me want to write better, even if I know I can never better it.