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The Music of the Spheres: a Novel.

The Music of the Spheres: A Novel

Elizabeth Redfern


New York

ISBN 0399147632 USA $24.95, Can.$35.99, 417 pp.

This work is English-based teacher and musician Elizabeth Redfern's first novel. From the lack of other attributions, it appears to be her first book of any sort. It may not however be her first book WRITTEN, but rather her first published; the two don't always coincide.

A bit oddly, this is a story of England, written by an English woman--but no English publisher is mentioned in its front pages. One wonders whether English readers are even aware of its existence?

All in all it is a very ambitious and creditable effort, but it isn't perfect in quite every detail. As one instance, students of modern, heliocentric (sun-centred) astronomy have, since Copernicus in the early 1540s, applied the term "planet" to all the visible, opaque bodies in revolution about the sun. Certainly by the late 18th century, 250 years after Copernicus, astronomers would not have called these "stars". Yet a great deal of this book speaks of a so-called "lost star", actually Ceres, a large asteroid orbiting the sun in the belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Likewise, knowing that the orbits of the known planets are elliptical (a circle being a special case of that shape), no reasonably intelligent mathematician or astronomer would have wasted time, as the character Alexander does in Chapter XLVI (or 46), trying to fit parabolas to data observed for that "lost star". A parabola's legs, after all, diverge forever, never forming a closed orbit around, say, the sun.

The planet for which both French and English scientists feverishly searched eventually proves really to be a body too small (and very difficult to see) to qualify as a full planet. It therefore came to be called a "minor plant" or, nowadays, an asteroid as mentioned above.

Expecting any author of such a wide-ranging tome as this to get everything right in all the many fields tackled may simply be asking too much, despite evidence of Redfern's voluminous research. This particular story just had to be told, very likely--but an easier tale would have been a blessing to the writer especially, as a first effort.

The title, "The Music of the Spheres", derives from a theory of the ancient Ptolemaic or geocentric, pre-Copernician astronomy. Back then, a vast system of transparent spheres was imagined to rotate in a variety of ways about the earth as their centroid; one sphere bore the sun, another the moon, several more bore planets, and as the case might be--thus placing egotistical mankind at the exact centre of the universe.

As these imaginary spheres rotated, they produced imaginary music. It was all bosh, of course, but rather poetic bosh. Thinking of the parallel theories unicorns, centaurs and the like, there was no shortage of imagination in ancient times!

There is some mention of especially harpsichord music in this work. Does that slight content justify use of the name? I doubt it.

London, England is the locus of this story, at a time when many surrounding places that have long since been absorbed into the metropolis were merely outlying villages.

The historical setting is 1795, for Europe a critical time between the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars; a British army has just been beaten out of The Netherlands by hordes of Frenchmen aflame with revolutionary zeal. Britain next tries to support a doomed Royalist French attempt to retake the mainland, whilst a tangle of spies and astronomers among the masses of French refugees, aided by some disaffected English, betrays and plays havoc with that effort. It's a tale told in the third person, with all the freedom (and potential confusion) of that technique to hop from one person's point of view (POV) to another's. Most often the POV is that of Jonathan, a Home Office counterespionage functionary. Next in order of prominence is his half-brother Alexander, a former sailor and present church organist, mathematician, amateur astronomer, and gentle lover of a teenaged boy. There will also be momentary episodes seen from the POVs of murder victims, at the times of their attacks and deaths.

That freedom to float free of any particular body also take us on a disastrous Royalist French landing upon the now Republican French coast--even while the brothers just mentioned remain hundreds of miles behind, in London. Their fates are however involved, thanks to the spy network operating around them.

In "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower" (1950, Penguin ed. 1956), the renowned naval historical novelist C. S. Forester (not to say film makers who, half a century later, bastardized two of his books for TV) used the same historical material quite differently, as a forum for the development of his fictional youthful Horatio Hornblower character. Apart from all else, one and the same the same French commander's surname seems to be spelled Pouzages by Forester, Puisaye by Redfern.

News from the fighting front took about ten days to cross the Channel, a fact that in the meantime leaves Jonathan's career in tatters through the machinations of his country's enemies, who nullify his counterespionage effectiveness by discrediting him in every way possible.

Further about the series of grisly and at times gratuitous-seeming London murders, time after time after time the victims are redheaded prostitutes. With the likely exception of Jonathan's wife, whom I can't recollect "meeting" at all, not one woman in this story proves "virtuous", although the most prominent whorish example charges no money for her favours (and, quite incidentally, goes unmolested.)

The common factor of red hair is a part of the plot. Don't get fed up with that long sequence, then; the book makes a good read, despite it.

The dust-jacket is worth seeing for itself, but one wonders how much of a book's cost results from such elaborateness? Gold embossing of the title and the author's name just begins its description. It would make a fine display in a "show library", though, if that were your interest.

Rather few grammatical and no spelling errors are apparent to me, in this novel. I say "apparent" because some questions involve little more than personal opinions and usages. In other words, I must split hairs to find fault. (An example is, on page 377, "is ... different ... to". I'd certainly have written "differs from", for I happen to see "to differ from" in the same light as "to diverge from", not as "to contrast to".)

If a novel of this calibre--worth reading for its historical insights as well as other aspects--is no longer available on booksellers' shelves, its author's name should be kept in mind in case she is able to compile another such work in future. Indeed, if the rule of thumb of one book per year applies, she may have three more volumes out by now!

I wish her every success.
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Author:Hodgins, Pete
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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