During the 1990s I became increasingly frustrated by the paradoxically conservative nature of what was being published in the fantasy genre. With the potential to be the most imaginative form of all speculative fiction, set in secondary worlds unbounded by contemporary knowledge of science, peopled by beings who could wield magic and those who were animated by it, genre fantasy ostensibly offers limitless scope for invention. Despite this, authors remained beholden to Tolkien's winning formula of elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs, dragons, wizards, and dark lords, dwelling within settings heavily influenced by Medieval Europe. At the end of the twentieth century a number of authors including Jeff VanderMeer, China Miéville, and Steph Swainston consciously broke away from the accepted conventions of the genre. Drawing upon the weird fiction of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, and Michael Moorcock, their work was identified as the New Weird and sought to redefine and expand the definition of fantasy by bringing in elements of horror, science fiction, and postmodernism. Whilst not usually identified with this group, Portuguese-Scottish author Ricardo Pinto pursued related goals when he returned to Tolkien's methodology for secondary world creation and twisted it to suit his own vision of what the genre could be, with results that are no less inventive than the works of his more celebrated contemporaries.
Pinto's marvellous The Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy mirrors the rigor with which Tolkien's Middle-earth was given life. It contains detailed invented history, mythology, and languages that are inspired by myriad real world cultures, from Aztec through to Renaissance Italy, creating a setting that feels fresh and original. Pinto has a superb eye for reworking tired fantasy tropes with a sense of urgency and often phantasmagorical brutality. When describing the Three Lands, which are ruled over from Osrakum by the God Emperor and his Chosen, members of a decadent and powerful human race who have instilled the notion that they are divine into those they rule with ruthless efficiency, he repeatedly reminds the reader of the pain, suffering, spilt blood, and crushed bones of the slaves required to maintain it. The fantastic races that populate the trilogy are all human beneath their mutilation, and the fauna differs from our own world primarily in the respect that dinosaurs are not extinct and are used as steeds (aquar), hunted for food (earthers), and deployed in battle carrying towers equipped with flame pipes (the leviathan dragons).
The Chosen (1999) introduces this world by creating a form of portal narrative that takes you from traditional epic fantasy into Pinto's Three Lands. We are introduced to the protagonist, Carnelian, as he resides with his father, Lord Suth, in the Hold, attended to by their servants and personal guard. Located on an island in the far north, their home feels closer to the traditional Medieval European inspired fantasy than any other environment within the rest of the trilogy. Though Carnelian is one of the Chosen, his father's exile means that his upbringing has been less strict than those of his peers in Osrakum, leading to such unbecoming behaviour as not distancing himself from his half-brothers, Tain and Keal, or his father's Plainswoman concubine, Ebeny, who he regards as his mother. As such, his sensibility is sufficiently differentiated from the ritualistic, otherworldly rulers of the Three Lands to allow him to provide a vehicle through which the reader can orientate themselves.
Carnelian's life is transformed forever when a boat arrives at the island bearing three of the Chosen and their attendants. The foremost is Lord Aurum, who persuades Lord Suth to return from exile in order to oversee the election of a new God Emperor, for the old is terminally ill. There are two candidates, Nephron, who is favoured by Aurum, and Molochite, who is supported by the Empress Ykoriana. Of the other two Chosen present in the Hold, Vennel is in thrall to Ykoriana and Jaspar has yet to commit to a faction. The first sign of the Chosen's cruelty is given when Aurum states that their ship needs to be repaired and resupplied by ransacking the Hold, leaving those servants of House Suth that could not be accommodated on the return voyage to starvation and exposure. Pinto deftly uses this shift in the Suth's servants' fortunes, from domestic happiness to misery at the hands of the callous Masters (as the Chosen are known to them), to signal the more widespread suffering that is inflicted upon the other races by the system which oppresses them.
It is a testament to the mind's caprice that the characters of the Hold are largely forgotten as the world opens before Carnelian. Their journey over sea and land allows the reader to discover the beauty of the Three Lands, with its monumental cities and breathtaking landscapes. Pinto teases out necessary exposition through Carnelian's curiosity. The peaceful periods of their journey are painstakingly illustrated with gorgeous prose that is both concise and poetic. Towering cliffs, endless plains of dust, and imposing fortresses that draw parallels to impressive structures from our world, such as places of worship and government, embody both great beauty and terrible power:
The colours in Carnelian's vision oozed slowly back from whiteness. He gasped. The sea was so green it might have been liquid jade. Two long arms of cliffs embraced the bay, the eastern a curving sweep of stone made turquoise by the sun, the western dark in its own shadow. Sunk between them he saw a many-towered citadel. Above that, a misty blue valley faded up into the sky. (pp. 144-5)
Pinto's control over the rhythm and flow of his novel is masterly. On a first read, some sections may seem to drag; yet in later volumes it becomes clear how solid the foundations he lays here really are. The subtle characterisation and detailed worldbuilding found in The Chosen are essential to facilitate the more purposeful pace of the remaining two volumes of the trilogy. And I don't want to overstate the problem. For one thing, any sense of peace remains superficial throughout, as the Chosen repeatedly exercise their power to execute anyone who transgresses against the Law-that-must-be-obeyed, or simply gets in their way. Such interjections of visceral horror have enormous impact for both Carnelian and the reader. One of the most memorable scenes in The Chosen takes place as the ship nears land after many days spent on storm-tossed waves. In his eagerness to reach the deck, Carnelian forgets to wear his mask, which prevents the 'lesser' races from witnessing his divine beauty. This custom is enshrined in the Law, which Aurum enforces by ordering all non-Chosen on deck to be slaughtered:
A shriek became a gurgle as one of the sailors was suddenly impaled. Carnelian twitched as each body was skewered. Blood ran along the deck's grating and dribbled into the space below. Bleating broke out under their feet. The sweet smell of blood clotted the air. The guardsmen unstuck the sailors from the deck with kicks and threats. They forced them to drag the bleeding bodies to the gaps in the rail and throw them into the sea. (pp. 133-4)
The Chosen rule through terror, protecting their privileged status with an unsurpassed capacity for sadistic retribution. This is a message that is reinforced throughout the journey through the Guarded Land towards Osrakum, as Jaspar seeks to gain influence over Carnelian by exploiting his affection for Tain. After deliberately exposing his face in the presence of Carnelian's half-brother, Jaspar demands that Carnelian reveal the source of Aurum's power over his father, or else his brother's eyes will be removed as punishment for his transgression. The very fabric of their society encourages the Chosen to revel in cruelty, making them seem as much a part of the system as their servants—a point that is returned to and expanded upon in the second and third books. But for now, as their journey progresses, the compassionate Carnelian feels increasingly alienated from his Chosen peers, yet unable to effectively challenge them as their violence is supported by the all-pervasive Law.
The narrative is electrified when the party finally reaches Osrakum. I shared Carnelian's fascination with the dark and glittering heart of the Commonwealth. It is here that we are introduced to the Wise, the group that are most heavily invested in maintaining the balance of power between themselves, the Great (high-ranking Chosen), and the House of Masks (the Imperial House). The Wise guard the knowledge of the Commonwealth, and thus wield enormous power; but the price they pay is extreme mutilation that deprives them of all senses but touch. They can only communicate through a servant called a homunculus, by means of a complex system involving manipulation of their throat. Pinto revels in grotesque minutiae when describing the violence of the Three Lands, at times reminding me of a more restrained Poppy Z. Brite:
Each eye is sliced out like a stone from a peach. The red spirals of their hearing are cored from their heads and the fleshy shells shorn off. Caustic inhalations burn away their smelling and afterwards the useless meat of their nose is discarded. Their tongues are drawn out and harvested like the saffrons of a crocus. Once his mutilations are complete, a Sapient is left only feet and hands as the primary organs of his perception. [ . . . ] For each Sapient, his own, unique homunculus is a bridge into the outer world that if once removed leaves him as isolated as a rock in the midst of the sea. (pp. 525-6)
Their disfigurement is designed to induce a level of introversion and focus unattainable to those outside their order which, combined with their need to use an intermediary to engage with the external world, gives them an eerily detached and implacable demeanour. They are just one of several castes that have been transformed by the Law into a race bound together in ritual deformity—and just one reason why, despite being marketed as a fantasy trilogy, I think that The Stone Dance of the Chameleon is a fine example of horror writing. Carnelian's lack of conditioning allows the reader to experience the spectacular cruelty of this quotidian aspect of the Three Lands. Pinto uses horror to jolt the reader from the sense of escapism that is often associated with the fantasy genre, a feature he shares with Miéville and VanderMeer, among others, to encourage greater emotional engagement with his secondary world. There are numerous shockingly brutal passages detailing human suffering laced throughout The Stone Dance, delivered with a measured, steady tone like that of the above quote, which lends the body horror a sense of numbing inevitability within the context of a bloody and unforgiving Law. It is one of Pinto's greatest achievements that this fantasy trilogy contains no magic and yet retains an atmosphere of occult malevolence drawn from ritual mutilation and sacrifice.
Carnelian is isolated within this weird, labyrinthine seat of power and remains an outsider figure for much of the new God Emperor's election. Whilst his father is overseeing the preparations, Carnelian is moved into the Sunhold, near to the sanctum of the God Emperor. Bored, he decides to explore, uncovering access to the libraries of the Wise beneath a trapdoor in one of the halls. There he encounters a youth named Osidian, who teaches him to read the beadcord of the Wise, a form of Braille stored on reels. As a friendship is built between them, Osidian suggests that they journey down into the Yden, Osrakum's garden. Away from the constraints of court life, Carnelian is the happiest he has been since the ship arrived on the island of the Hold. The two boys swim together in the lagoons and Osidian offers to wash Carnelian. The intimate act allows their developing feelings for each other to be expressed physically: they kiss and make love. Pinto handles their burgeoning relationship with skill and care, creating a sense of authentic love between two male youths. In a body of work so intensely concerned with prejudice, it is interesting that homosexual relationships are openly accepted amongst the Chosen; what we would consider a progressive element to their culture is at odds with the Law's constricting rules concerning interracial relationships. In making homosexuality an accepted part of the culture of the Three Lands, Pinto is challenging the normative heterosexuality that often underpins genre fantasy, creating a dissonance more reminiscent of authors such as Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ than many fantasy authors. It reflects the way in which social norms are constructed and change throughout history—for example, drawing parallels to ancient Greece whilst avoiding any explicit correlation.
Upon their return from the Yden, Osidian becomes increasingly distant and when they part Carnelian fears that they may never meet again. The election becomes a protracted battle, resulting in Suth and Aurum snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as Nephron is elected God Emperor. Attending the announcement of the result, Carnelian feels betrayed when it is revealed that Nephron and Osidian are one and the same person. Their time together will end at the Apotheosis, when the new God Emperor will be concealed forever behind masks and rituals. After the election, Osidian seeks to placate Carnelian, but Carnelian convinces his lover to embark on one final return to the Yden, which leads to their capture by Ykoriana's spies. Shortly thereafter, the novel ends, with more questions than answers. It is a satisfying break-point, in that it left me wanting to find out what happens next, but is also proof that Pinto conceived the three volumes as one continuing story. Whilst highly enjoyable as a novel in its own right, The Chosen is best viewed as the satisfying foundation for the increasingly engrossing narrative that unfolds across the remaining two novels.
The Standing Dead (2002) begins with a brief scene in Osrakum, in which Lord Suth's attempts to locate Carnelian and Osidian conclude with failure, resulting in his losing the support of Lord Aurum and gaining the enmity of the Wise. The election has been compromised, and Molochite will ascend to the position of God Emperor in his brother's absence. Meanwhile, Carnelian awakens to find that he and Osidian are being transported in funerary urns, which are opened by a soldier who decides to sell them in one of the southern cities after he realizes that his life is forfeit if they are returned to the Chosen. The tone is claustrophobic, as Carnelian and Osidian are forced to march amongst the lowly sartlar, their pale skin disguised with bitumen and their backs bowed by ropes. They are attacked by a group of Plainsmen raiders, who are seeking compensation for the taxes they were forced to pay in honour of the new God Emperor.
At a crucial juncture, whilst Osidian suffers from a raging fever, Carnelian decides that he would rather try to forge a life for the two of them in the wilderness than return to Osrakum, where Molochite's succession will be sanctified with his brother's blood. The novel then follows their journey to the Earthsky, the home of the raiders, as Carnelian ingratiates himself with the Plainsmen whilst Osidian continues to be weakened by illness. Upon recovering, Osidian is horrified to find that Carnelian is adapting to their new life, showing a willingness to abandon their privileges that his courtly upbringing rebels against. Despite identifying with Carnelian's compassionate nature, in this novel I found Osidian's character by far the more compelling of the two, driven by a powerful conviction that he will return to rule Osrakum by any means, at any cost. Carnelian becomes an almost secondary figure in The Standing Dead, reacting to limit the damage caused by his lover's hunger for conquest and status. At every opportunity, Osidian risks his life in order to gain prestige over the tribesmen, for example by slaying a deadly ravener when it attacks their camp and claiming that his hand was guided by the Black God (a universally worshipped deity, but specifically worshipped by the Chosen as the lord of war). Fearing his influence, one of their leaders challenges him to unarmed combat, in which Osidian first overpowers, and then cripples his opponent, ignoring pleas for him to show mercy:
Carnelian shuffled forward. "Osidian, you are victorious. Let him go."
?[ . . . ]
Osidian gave no response and like a machine continued inexorably to bend Ranegale's back.
Carnelian threw himself on Osidian, trying to release his hold on Ranegale. Clawing blood from Osidian's thigh, the Plainsman flung his head back, his disfigured face shaping a silent cry of agony. The crack as his back snapped made everyone jump. [ . . . ] Osidian was staring at the broken man as if he had come across him by surprise. (p. 142)
As this passage illustrates, Osidian, following the God who he claims supports his quest to return to Osrakum by sending him visions and omens, acts in a distanced manner. He views the Plainsmen as tools with which to attain his goals, a lesser race he cannot care for. Yet he is far from dispassionate, as he remains sensitive to Carnelian's suffering even as they drift apart, bound by their dying love and similar rank.
The Plainsmen are united in their oppression, with strong personal ties within each tribe. The raiding party who capture Carnelian and Osidian belong to the Ochre, whose Elders decide to let the two Chosen, whom they refer to as the Standing Dead, remain hidden amongst them. Osidian encourages the existing feuds between the tribes to escalate to conflict, using his superior knowledge of military tactics to lead the Ochre to a series of victories that creates an empire in the Earthsky. Pinto offers a rather more nuanced representation of an outsider assuming control of a tribal people than is often seen. Numerous comparisons can be made, for example, between the depiction of the Plainsmen and the Na'vi in James Cameron's Avatar (2009), from their symbiotic relationship with the land to their respect for their Elders. But whereas the Na'vi are presented as somewhat incorruptible, with a nobility that inspires Sully to defect to their side and lead them in war, many of the Plainsmen, who have lived in mortal fear of the Standing Dead, are willing to accept Osidian's leadership in return for the prestige and material gains he brings them. And where Jake Sully was presented as a messianic figure who assimilated himself into Na'vi culture with relative ease, Osidian plays the tribes against one another to ensure a hierarchy that places the Ochre in a preeminent position, before usurping the Elders to become the ruler of the Earthsky.
As Osidian becomes ever more involved in his political machinations, Carnelian's affections turn towards a married Plainsman named Fern. His former lover suspects that the interest is mutual and a bitter love triangle emerges, with Osidian playing on Carnelian's developing feelings in order to enlist his help in training the Plainsmen for war. The novel takes an interesting turn when a group of Marula, men from the Lower Reach, are found raiding Osidian's fledgling empire. When they are overpowered one of their number, Morunasa, demands that he be granted an audience with Osidian, as he is an Oracle of their god, the Darkness-under-the-Trees, and as such one of the ruling elite of the Marula. He informs Osidian that he will help persuade his people to fight under the Master's banner in return for assistance with rebuilding a passage that joins the Lower Reach to Isle of Flies, which is the shrine of the Darkness-under-the-Trees. Needing additional forces, Osidian agrees and is gradually brought to believe that the Marula's deity is an aspect of his own Black God. Believing in his own Messianic destiny, Osidian takes their alliance as divine support for his eventual war with Osrakum.
Osidian's character is far more complex than his persona as the Master, for he still loves Carnelian and doubts whether he is truly destined to succeed. In order to restore his faith he submits to the initiation of the Marula Oracles, which allows him to seek reassurance of his fate from the Darkness-beneath-the-Trees. Another example of Pinto's understanding of body horror, this process is truly disturbing: the initiate must submit to the Oracles opening wounds on their bodies, which then become infested with huge maggots, the pain from which allows their god to communicate with them. The novel ends with Osidian escalating his atrocities but Carnelian unable to kill him because he learns that the Chosen have become aware of the Plainsmen's defiance and Aurum has been sent with a legion of dragons to break Osidian's power base. With the knowledge that Aurum will undoubtedly devastate the Earthsky as retribution for the Plainsmen's sacrilege against the Law, Carnelian believes that Osidian's victory is the surest method for protecting the people he has come to consider his family, forcing him into an uneasy alliance with his former lover.
The escalation of events and the increasing tension between Carnelian and Osidian make The Standing Dead a vast improvement over The Chosen. Once again, the ending is satisfying yet tantalizing, with the opposing forces preparing for conflict in the final volume. The first two books complement one another extremely well; Pinto is able to introduce a very complex secondary world without recourse to disrupting exposition whilst allowing the epic narrative the space to feel believable, as closeted courtly youths develop the skills necessary to command a force and challenge the might of Osrakum. The Standing Dead is the first indication of the extent to which Pinto is reinventing the epic fantasy genre, as we are shown the world from the perspective of the lowest classes and races. Rather than offer simple solutions to complex problems (as in Avatar), Pinto is willing to show the corrupting nature of power wherever it is exercised. At the end of the novel, Carnelian is forced to choose between two undesirable options, having been manipulated throughout by a political genius exceeding his own.
I shall avoid delving too far into the breathtaking The Third God (2009), as Pinto provides the reader with a key with which to unlock the secrets of the Wise with apocalyptic consequences. Rest assured that this information builds upon the knowledge of the Three Lands established in the first two volumes, bringing a greater depth of understanding as to how and why the Chosen occupy their position of preeminence. As the imposing cover art suggests, Osidian brings war to the Chosen, leading to cataclysmic levels of carnage that lend the novel an almost hallucinatory feel. This is compounded by Pinto's use of dream sequences, as Carnelian's sleep is increasingly disturbed by unsettling images signifying death and destruction:
Old woman's face running with blood. Voice rustling leaves. [ . . . ] Iron streams in her wrinkles pour down to the sea. Ravens kiting, scribing circles in the wind. Is that a body at the focus of their funnelling? No. Fresh uncurling ferns, green foam on the waves. The tide is coming in. The tide is coming in. (p. 123)
Both the reader and Carnelian are tantalized by these visions, which utilize a symbolism that is not explained until very late in the novel. Their frequency increases as the violence escalates, giving The Third God a sense of surreal horror only hinted at in the preceding novels. When Osidian uses sartlar slaves as a meat shield against the legions of Molochite, the battle results in hundreds of thousands of deaths, creating a landscape of corpses that lend the plains around Osrakum a hellish quality befitting the apocalyptic tone of the narrative:
They crept along a valley. Mounds of corpses rose up on either side, striped black by the passage of dragonfire. The rain had quenched most of the burning, but furtive, lurid flames still flickered in the depths of the piled-up dead. [ . . . ] They would rather have walked blind were it not that they feared snagging their feet upon an arm, a leg, a crushed head, then falling into the foul mud. Earth mixed with rain and gore and shit, churned by panicked sartlar, formed a treacherous, sucking mire. Everywhere streams ran like arteries exposed to the air. Everywhere sartlar like crushed shellfish were extruding pastes, leaking fluids. (p. 463)
The Third God sees the transition of Carnelian from passive objector to active agent, as his compassion becomes an opposing force to Osidian's destructive nature. The tension between the two, complicated by the blossoming relationship between Fern and Carnelian, provides a much needed personal element to the major events that they dictate. It is a profoundly moving book, but also such a compelling read that I couldn't help but devour this massive tome in a week of intense reading. The Third God took Pinto seven years to write, and fully showcases his increased stylistic and narrative prowess.
The Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy is an extremely important step forward in the ongoing process of widening the horizons of a genre that still holds enormous untapped potential. Pinto has created a work that possesses depth and complexity, juxtaposing beauty with horror to spectacular effect. Though the trilogy weighs in at over two thousand pages, I would recommend that anyone with a love of fantasy and a desire to see its continuing reinvention make the time investment and immerse themselves in Pinto's Three Lands.
David McWilliam lives in Liverpool.