“Beggars in Satin” and “The Knot Garden” are two novelettes first published in Mary Gentle’s Scholars and Soldiers (1989) and reissued in the Gollancz White Crow omnibus. In publication chronology, I believe they’re the first works to star the swordswoman Valentine (a Scholar-Soldier) and the architect Baltazar Casaubon. In internal chronology, one may say that “Beggars in Satin” precedes “The Knot Garden,” but as Valentine and Baltazar hop universes and timelines with gleeful abandon in the three full-length novels which feature them, it is impossible to relate these two novelettes to their further adventures.
Gentle’s career bears the stamp of a fascination with Renaissance and Early Modern science and occultism.* The White Crow stories draw on elements of mathematical-magical worldviews current in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudoph II, in the circle of intellectuals around John Dee and Edward Kelley, and in the Rosicrucian manifestos published at Kassel in the early 17th century. A later book, 1610: Sundial in a Grave, would present a (not-quite-alternate) secret history featuring a species of Rosicrucianism directly, and involving the astrologer, Rosicrucian apologist, and alchemist Robert Fludd (also a controversial doctor of medicine).
*I’ve read a bit of Frances Yates and a bit of this and that and the other, but it’s not like Renaissance culture and Hermetic occultism is a speciality of mine, or anything. Errors of fact are practically guaranteed.
The White Crow stories are much more allusive of Renaissance magia, as opposed to treating with it directly, and—in the case of these novelettes, though not universally—much more vehemently fantastic than 1610. Baltazar Casaubon shares a surname with Isaac Casaubon (a classical scholar who debunked then-current wisdom concerning the antiquity of the writings of Hermes Trismegestus, and whose son Méric produced A true and faithful relation of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits in 1659); Valentine is an itinerant swordswoman, learned in the occult arts and affiliated with the “Invisible College.”**
**An “Invisible College” is referred to in the Rosicrucian manifestos, and also—thank you, Wikipedia! You remember things so I don’t have to!—in the letters of 17th-century English natural philosopher Robert Boyle.
(Allusive of the Renaissance, yes: but unlike the historical Renaissance, Gentle puts women in the public sphere, doing things ordinary and extraordinary, throughout. It’s one of the things that make these novelettes so compelling—despite their flaws.)
“Beggars in Satin” might start out with a disembarkation from a steam train—Master-Captain Valentine, the Scholar-Soldier, arriving in the City ruled by Lord-Architect Baltazar Casaubon—but the train signifies no steampunkesque beginning. If there’s science here, it’s science familiar to the Renaissance world from the On Architecture of Vitruvius and the pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria: science which Salomon de Caus used in the gardens he designed at Heidelberg in 1614 to create clockwork-driven singing birds, a water organ, and a reconstruction of the statue of Egyptian Memnon.
I mention Renaissance gardens because the plots of both “Beggars in Satin” and “The Knot Garden” involve gardens. Both stories draw consciously upon the ideas of the Paracelsian Hermetic union of Microcosm with Macrocosm—that is, earthly things are affected by heavenly things according to principles involving numbers and the elements. As above, so below. The logical magico-mathematical converse of this, of course, which Gentle is quick to employ, is that heavenly things can be affected by earthly things according to those same principles.
In “Beggars in Satin,” Casaubon has been building a Memory Garden on geometric principles,*** but it has become corrupted. Strange entities are growing through in the heart of the Garden: horror almost Lovecraftian, for it is never properly explained. Casaubon and his Chancellor need the aid of young, boastful Master-Captain Valentine, the girl Janou of the Invisible College, and the anarchist Feliche in order to restore the Garden to harmonious order.
***And Gentle is wicked cunning. “Salomon de Caus built such a garden, once, four thousand years ago.” Is that not what one might call a breadcrumb?
As a story, “Beggars in Satin” has a strange shape and an off-kilter conclusion, but it remains one of the more compelling novelettes I’ve ever read. It’s clearly riffing off a sword-and-sorcery tradition that goes back to Conan, but it’s wrapped the sword-and-sorcery tropes up in Hermetic science-magic and conducted a number of reversals on how sword-and-sorcery normally goes. Valentine is not only a swordswoman, but a learned woman, as is her ally Janou. The status quo ante isn’t seen as perfectly excellent: Feliche casts Casaubon and the other Architect-Lords as tyrants and oppressors. Casaubon remains invested in his creation and resists its destruction, and the inimical forces gathering in the Garden are eventually defeated by harmony—musical and geometric—rather than destroyed by main force.
“The Knot Garden” is another strangely-shaped story. It reunites the reader with Valentine, Casaubon, Janou and Feliche, and introduces the Lord-Architect’s Chancellor, Tabitha Perry, together with another Learned Fellow, Al-Iskandriya, in a story that mixes the precession of the equinoxes, the Seven Lords of the Shining Paths,**** and social revolution. When Valentine disappears from the Memory Garden—now a plain Miracle Garden—Casaubon sets out to find her. Unusual things result.
****And the symbolism associated with said Lords is once again immensely reminiscent of Renaissance Hermeticism.
Borrowing the terminology from Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, you can see “Beggars in Satin” and “The Knot Garden” as immersive fantasies which host a fantasy intrusion. On the other hand, it is also possible to cast them as intensely scientific fantasies, in which knowledge and discovery is seen as a net good, despite occasional consequences. Gentle herself, in the introduction to the White Crow omnibus, describes the stories contained therein as science fiction where the science was 17th-century Hermetic science. Which is certainly an unusual approach to fantasy—and in this case, I think, an admirably worthy one.