Read this for book club... well, that and because I really like Mary Gentle.
Here, in an alternate 19th-century Italy, we encounter Conrad Scalese - a professional opera librettist. Unfortunately, right now, he's being unexpectedly pursued by the Inquisition. You see, last night the hall where his latest opera was being performed was struck by lightning, burned to the ground - and the Inquisition blames his music. Because, as it's well known, religious music can often cause miracles to occur - and, sometimes, secular music can do the same, although this is an occurrence the Inquisition would like to avoid at all costs.
As an atheist, and firm believer in the natural sciences, Conrad has no truck with miracles. However, he admits that unexplained phenomena - such as the Returned Dead, when deceased people walk, vampire-like, and other 'miraculous' events do occur. Regardless, like most people, he'd rather not be in the hands of the Inquisition.
So when no less than the King himself offers Conrad an unusual assignment which would let him out of his arrest - of course he takes the commission. He is to write an opera - but not just any opera. A mysterious group of Satanists are embroiled in a plot to write a Black Opera which will cause volcanoes to erupt, wreak ecological devastation, and moreover, summon Lucifer and put evil in charge of the world. Conrad's job is to write an opera that will stop this from happening - a "counter-opera."
A countdown-style thriller proceeds to unfold...
The book is just full of wonderful details. Structurally, the plot of the book mirrors the plot of an opera itself, which is fun. There are tons of throwaway lines, which are just amazing (like the one about who Darwin married). The timeline plays fast and loose with history - although the background is vivid and thoroughly researched. I didn't care. It may bug some people.
It's not a perfect book. I often feel that Gentle's characterization is a bit opaque - I'd like to see more of her characters' interior lives. The whole race-against-time plot device is a little old, and the Grand Climax is a bit over-the-top.
However, the ending of the book made me up my rating from 4 stars to 5. I nearly cheered. I feel like I've read literally hundreds of stories just waiting to see this obvious solution to a common dilemma proposed. Gentle finally did it.