One of the things I enjoy most about Gillian Polack’s books, besides their quirky sense of humour, is how wonderfully she explores the everyday and the ordinary, giving them texture and depth so that they’re not ordinary or mundane at all.
In Langue [dot] doc 1305 Polack marries her deep knowledge as a Medievalist to a favourite SF trope – time travel to the days of knights, lords and peasants – and then does her usual magic of transforming the ordinary into the profound.
Artemesia Wormwood (a name she chose for herself) finds herself a last-minute addition to a team of Australian scientists travelling back in time to Languedoc, France, to the year 1305. She’s taken on the task of team historian for the money – her sister needs it for cancer treatment – but when she goes back in time she finds the scientists generally don’t have interest in, let alone respect for, her expertise.
The team is meant to be studying the era without interacting with it, and especially not with the inhabitants of the local town, St-Guilhem-le-Desert. You can imagine how successful that turns out to be.
The inevitable folding together of medieval humanity and the time team is subtle and slow, and Polack interleaves the lives of both groups of people with a gentle but inexorable rhythm.
We see parallels and echoes of each group in the other. The mischief makers and the leaders; those who are arrogant and those who are quietly trying to keep their society functioning; the friendships and the growing emnities.
Artemesia keeps trying to warn the time team that the people out there are real and that these are dangerous times. As the two groups begin to interact in small ways, however, even Artemesia may be getting complacent through her role as liaison with the knight Guilhem, himself an outsider looking for his place in the community.
Langue [dot] doc 1305 has many delights, from the superb low key characterisation that develops such wonderful, fully human people, to Polack’s equally low key yet pointed storytelling which points out how many fallacies people retain about what it is to be human in the medieval era.
Some characters are more sympathetic than others, though Polack’s compassion in drawing out human frailty and strengths means that your sympathies may wax and wane until the last few chapters. Artemesia’s playful academic humour and the way she’s often relegated by her colleagues to ‘pointless, useless irritant’ ensure you’re on her side from the start.
The build up to the confrontations of the conclusion is steady but never dull. When the final events take place (within the caves that are temporary home to the team, within the village, and where those two connect) they have a strong impact on both characters and reader.
I love the texture, intelligence, compassion and craft of Gillian Polack’s writing. I love her quiet women finding their strength and her wit. I love her perspective as a Jewish Australian and her great humanity as a writer.
And I loved Langue [dot] doc 1305.
Since the sad demise of Satalyte Publishing, Langue [dot] doc 1305 is out of print. Happily, it’s due to be rereleased later in the year. (I’ll blog again then when it’s available.)