NESFA Members' Reviews


by Jack Dann

Bantam, ISBN 0-553-09637-0, 1995, 486pp, US$22.95

A book review by Evelyn C. Leeper

Copyright 1996 Evelyn C. Leeper

This seems to have been the "Year of da Vinci," with not one but two alternate history novels about the artist and inventor. One of these is Paul J. McAuley's PASQUALE'S ANGEL, the other is Jack Dann's MEMORY CATHEDRAL.

I call them alternate histories, but Dann's at least is written more as a secret history--not what might have happened but didn't, but what might have happened that we didn't hear about. In this case, it's about what might have happened during Leonardo's trip east. Frankly, I am of the opinion that it would be unlikely that the events described here happened without any record, but that is a dispute over classification, not over the book itself.

And the book itself is very good. Dann has done the research, and the life and politics of 15th Century Florence and the eastern Mediterranean come to life in his telling. He does take a few liberties (changing Machiavelli's age, and introducing Christopher Columbus into the scene), but these are minor changes which serve the literary purpose without being false to the SENSE of historical truth. (George MacDonald Fraser explains this idea at greater length in his book THE HOLLYWOOD HISTORY OF THE WORLD.)

Even with all his research, though, at least one error has crept in. On page 342, Dann describes a camel as getting up by raising first its front part, then its back. Having ridden a camel, I can assure you that camels raise their back part first. (The first thing they tell you is to lean BACK when the camel gets up, or you'll fall off.)

But considering the level of detail that Dann has created, this is a truly minor point. Dann does a good job of describing the jockeying for power in the eastern Mediterranean as well as giving the reader a window into Leonardo mind through the use of "the memory cathedral" he has built. This book was not marketed as science fiction, so you will probably have to seek it out in the mainstream fiction section of your bookstore. Do so, by all means--it's well worth the search.

%T      The Memory Cathedral
%A      Jack Dann
%C      New York
%D      December 1995
%I      Bantam
%O      hardback, US$22.95
%G      ISBN 0-553-09637-0
%P      486pp

NESFA homepage | Review Index | More Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper