Ars Memoriae — Beth Bernobich

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Ars Memoriae by Beth Bernobich

PS Publishing

December 2009

Reviewed by Carole Ann Moleti

Ars Memoriae, Beth Bernobich’s complex but flawlessly told tale, blends mystery, crime fiction, and political intrigue with steampunk and alternate history. Éireann, an Ireland who successfully resisted English rule, finds itself enmeshed in political conflicts in the Balkans during the late 19th century. Ms. Bernobich even adds a dash of magical realism, with balloon flights to transport Commander Adrian Dee, the agent of Queen Áine Lasairona Devereaux, to sort out a messy situation.

The stage is set by an editor’s note giving a brief history of the genres, and an introduction by Kage Baker. I normally dislike reading another’s summary of what I’m about to read but, in this case, their carefully chosen words open the curtain. Ms. Bernobich then quickly brings on the cast of characters, leaving the reader to sit back and enjoy her accessible yet evocative prose, and one hell of a good story.

First, the alternate history:

“Dee drank down the last of his tea and glanced over the papers in his lap—reports from the Queen’s Constabulary, which had arrived by royal courier the day before. They were incomplete, which piqued his curiosity. Or rather, they were carefully edited summaries of what had to be longer, more detailed accounts from agents in the field. Still, they proved good summaries of the current situation throughout Europe, western Asia, and the Mediterranean colonies.

—Frankonia’s king facing opposition within his Council from those who favor an alliance with the Prussian States . . .
—sources from the Turkish States confirm the official heir’s recent death was the latest in a series of assassinations conducted between Koptic and Muslim factions . . .
—Serbia appears to be maneuvering to take control over the Balkan States. Austria still maintains its sovereignty over Hungary, Slovakia, and portions of Croatia, but we have reports of Serbian militia units engaging with Austrian troops in the eastern provinces, while Montenegro’s Prince Danilo II continues to press for kingship . . .

Delicate times, Dee thought. Especially for a prominent nation like Éireann, which had to negotiate a careful path between these many conflicts.”

But Adrian Dee has a big problem, one he’s been battling for a long time:

“…his eye caught on Aonoch Sanitarium, a high, handsome building, which stood on a rise overlooking the boulevard. Dee shuddered, remembering its stark corridors, the terror no amount of drugs or electricity could banish.

That was one set of memories. He also remembered the sanitarium from a different perspective, as a police detective seeking clues to a murder. Both were true. Both were subject to time’s distortions.”

Then the steampunk:

“…one could alter how time passes, much as you can affect how particles of light travel. He was working on such a device to support that theory.

Ilija insisted it would cause no lasting harm—stirring a thick soup, he called it—but doing so would make things more difficult for the government. Then the people would have to listen to us.

Dee shuddered. The description reminded him of his waking nightmares, when the world seemed to ripple and change shape around him.”

The cleverness of this gritty, realistic novella extends to the nuances of Latin translation. Ars Memoriae could mean “a trick of memory,”  “way of memory,” “realization of memory,” or “way of history” (per Words by William Whittaker

Some other excellent alternate histories and counterfactuals I’ve read include “Counterfactual” by Gardner Dozois (Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2006) and “His Master’s Voice” by Mark Rigney (Talebones #34, Winter 2007).  In these, the authors succeed in making the reader believe that events are not only subject to re-interpretation in the bright light of historical examination, but also to manipulation by forces we can only imagine, devices and abilities that push the limits of what seems possible.

I add Ars Memoriae to the list.