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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, October 10, 2004

School of Night by Alan Wall

School of Night by Alan Wall. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN: 0-312-28778-X

And this is yet another of the literary novels I've been reading lately. And once again, it is not a thriller, but more of a psychological tale. The literary element is a variation on that age-old question: Did William Shakespeare really write all of the plays attributed to him? This question is tied in with an investigation based on a line from Love's Labour's Lost, which reads "The hue of dungeons and the School of Night."

Was there really a "School of Night?" and if so, who belonged to it, and what did they do? Our scholarly protagonist thinks the line refers to Sir Walter Ralegh (the spelling used in the book) and a group of his companions. Ralegh spent a number of years incarcerated in the Tower of London both before and after his final fateful journey to the New World in search of gold, and was eventually beheaded.

As the story begins (and ends) our protagonist has just stolen the coded notebooks, recently discovered, of one Thomas Hariot, companion to Ralegh, and presumed member of The School of Night. Decoding them will finally reveal, he fervently hopes, the truth about that mysterious School which has consumed his intellectual life.

But these scholarly pursuits only provide a thin veneer over the real story: two friends from childhood whose lives, though very different, remain inextricably intertwined. Sean Tallow, the scholar, and Dan Pagett, the man of the world, who makes his fortune using less than honest means. Dan often treats his friend with disdain, steals his women, and yet, somehow needs him all the same.

As the story begins (and ends), Dan has just died, leaving Sean to ponder over the meaning of their lives. The entire story, then, is told in what are, essentially, flashbacks, even though much of it is told directly, as though it were occurring in real time.

While the book is a mildly entertaining read, it is by no means a page-turner. And the literary premise ultimately disappoints. No great literary discoveries are made, no really new information about Shakespeare is presented, although a darned good case for Christopher Marlowe as the REAL author is put forward at one point, then ultimately rejected.

This is one of the big differences between regular fiction and science fiction. In regular fiction such as this, you have to end up in the real world as we know it. There's not really much room for radically new versions of historical events. Only if you're willing to stretch, even distort that reality (like Dan Brown in The da Vinci Code, for instance), can you get away with a reality that is truly outside the box. Science fiction, on the other hand, does that very thing as its basis of existence. Perhaps that's part of why SciFi has remained my primary escapist genre of choice for all these many years.

About this book? Marginally recommended.


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