Historical fantasy is a bridge between the escapism of speculative fiction and the realism of literary fiction, and Jack Dann’s Shadows in the Stone is an enthralling example of what historical fantasy looks like when done well.
The novel takes place in what we would recognise as Renaissance Italy, but with a twist. In this universe, the beliefs of a little-known religious ideology called Gnosticism are actually true, and traditional Judeo-Christian understandings of the world are turned on their head or transformed altogether. Each chapter begins with citations from fictional Gnostic texts, which set the stage with an air of mysticism and cosmic importance. By way of comparison, one might think of this story as similar to Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, drawing from some of the same sources and inspirations. The story’s philosophy is not strictly Gnostic, drawing from Dann’s imagination in ample measure. Still, it is abundantly clear that he’s done his research to create a believable world.
As an example of this unusual world-building, the story’s antagonist is the being we would call Jehovah — except in this universe, Jehovah is a kind of fallen angel called the Demiurge, or Yaldabaoth; an entity of malevolent purpose who created the material world in his wicked image. The ‘God’ of supreme power (or the “Invisible Spirit”) is a nonactor in this world, largely leaving humanity to its fate without intervention. Traditional Christians worship Jehovah, but a select few understand the real nature of the cosmos and are morally obligated to resist Jehovah and his assembled forces.
This world includes many familiar elements, such as the American Civil War, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Vatican, and the Templars, but uses them in unexpected ways to create a world that is not quite the same as ours. It all feels just alien enough to set us free from the expectations of our reality and engage with an epic cosmic struggle. What we might perceive as divine is shown to be nefarious, and what we think of as evil is actually a force for good. Dann’s ability to capture this sensation of otherworldliness is impressive.
Leading us through this mind-bending voyage are our protagonists, Lucian ben-Hananiah and Louisa Morgan. Lucian is raised as part of an Essene clan dedicated to keeping the Gnostic documents secret and safe before an attack on his clan forces him to flee the home of his youth and come to Italy. Several years later, he finds himself drawn into the celestial battle alongside the angel Gabriel, standing against the forces of Jehovah. He is aided by the historical figure known as Pico Della Mirandola, a combination scholar, philosopher, and wizard, who has his own reasons to resist the religious orders of the day and help Lucian explore his power.
Louisa, in complete contrast to Lucian, is a girl out of time and space. She hails from the bloody battlefields of the American Civil War and, in the midst of a naval battle between Confederate and Union forces, she is hoisted away by celestial forces, compelled by destiny to assume her role as a representative of the Gnostic supreme mother, Sophia. She winds up halfway across the world, struggling to understand her place in the entirely different war taking place in Renaissance Italy.
The story rotates between her perspective and Lucian’s, among others, as they navigate both the oppressive institutions of the material world and the supernatural forces that want nothing more than to grind hope and goodness into fine powder and bring about an age of eternal evil. Their battlegrounds range from the streets of Florence and other European cities to an airship fueled by a collection of dead souls to celestial hellscapes. The final conflict encompasses all of these settings and more, with a conclusion that is so epic in its scope and yet so personal in its impact that it feels like the story the Christian Bible never finished telling.
Side characters throughout the book are complex and three-dimensional enough to get the impression that each could be the subject of their own story, without detracting from the protagonists’. Such characters are woven through the whole narrative, such as the heroes’ guiding light, the archangel Gabriel, who bears the faint scent of cinnamon.
Other characters are less touched on but still interesting and human, such a Confederate ship captain named Major Dunean who helps Louisa escape from the Union attack early in the story and receives a call back at the end. This is a world that feels lived-in and vibrant, even as we see it devoured by ghostly, twisted vines that drain the life force from hapless human victims, and ravaged by demons that inflict horrible torture upon the characters.
Throughout the book, the narrative is elevated by Dunn’s voice as a writer, honed over a long career as a writer, editor, and teacher. He has mastered the art of being cryptic without descending into meaninglessness, of surprising the reader without resorting to cheap tricks, and telling a cosmic story that still centres around very believable people.
That said, the book is a complex text that may be difficult for casual readers of fiction, speculative or otherwise. Dunn’s narration is both vivid and intelligent in ample measure, but not fine-tuned for the modern reader’s easy comprehension. The language is not-quite archaic, and the cast of characters is vast and diverse enough that the book includes a dramatis personae list at the beginning.
The story’s bent toward a kind of spirituality and otherworldliness goes beyond what we readers of speculative fiction are used to from typical science fiction and fantasy fare. Those without an understanding of the novel’s historical and religious contexts might find themselves lost or disconnected. Still, for those readers willing to invest the time and energy, Shadows in the Stone is a tale that will cause them to ask questions about our own world we had never considered before.