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The Chosen UK cover

The Chosen US cover

The Standing Dead UK cover

The Standing Dead US cover

The Third God cover

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.

David McWilliam is a PhD student at Lancaster University, under the supervision of Dr. Catherine Spooner and Dr. Lee Horsley. His thesis looks at representations of folk devils in contemporary American culture and how they interrogate discourses of monstrosity about extreme criminal deviance. David is a critic of contemporary genre fiction whose reviews have appeared in Vector, Foundation and the Interzone website. Alongside Glyn Morgan, he is the co-founder of Twisted Tales, which runs a series of events that bring great horror fiction to the attention of a wider audience. He is the editor of Nightmare Visions, a reviews section of the Twisted Tales blog that promotes the best of 21st Century horror cinema. He is currently working on interviews with top contemporary horror authors for a proposed series to be published on the Gothic Imagination website (the first of which, with Sarah Pinborough, can be viewed here).
18 comments on “The Stone Dance of the Chameleon by Ricardo Pinto”

Dare I ask what happens to Fern's wife, or if she is described at all?
Incidentally, Nephron means kidney...

David McWilliam

Unfortunately I cannot answer that question without delivering one of the major plot spoilers I have so assiduously avoided. Fern's wife and the wider domestic relations within the Ochre tribe play a central role in The Standing Dead. Though women are often portrayed as supporting characters in The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, I think that they are well drawn and compelling.

"Incidentally, Nephron means kidney..."
Beeeeeeee-YOUtiful 🙂

Yes -- my half-joking, half-serious point speaks to the reviewer's assertion of "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."
For me, encountering a protagonist named Nephron immediately turns the entire effort into parody. Maybe Carnelian should have been called the equally heroic-sounding Hepar (Liver) for the sake of symmetry.
A bit more about this type of inspiration:
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
As for plot spoilers, the review contains a detailed layout of the plot. So the lack of any named (let alone contributing) female characters in this long description speaks for itself about how instrumental and/or compelling they are.

well, the name "Nephron" was actually carefully chosen - and I was fully aware that it can mean "kidney". What it also refers to is "nephrite" which is a term for one of two varieties of jade (the other being "jadeite"...) This is entirely consistent with other Chosen names. Further, I was trying to indicate a 'green' component to Osidian's nature - that somewhat modulates the 'black' association - this being part of a leitmotif colour system integral to the books. The term "nephrite" is directly linked to "kidney" for the simple reason that, when it was so named, it was believed that jade could be used to cure various ailments of the kidneys...
Further, I chose the name Nephron to resonate with Akhnaten's 'throne name' "Naphuria" - for reasons which are too subtle to go into here...
As for the role of women in the book, David McWilliams has merely chosen a particular reading of the text that somewhat avoids the female component. However, the female component is entirely central to the Stone Dance... and several of the main characters - in fact, at least 4 of the very most critical characters in the book - are women and it is a focus on the role of women and their powers and preoccupations, that is one of the most central themes of the books... if not THE most central...

"The term "nephrite" is directly linked to "kidney" for the simple reason that, when it was so named, it was believed that jade could be used to cure various ailments of the kidneys..."
Now you're just taking the piss.
*badum tish*
Thank you! I'll be here all week. Remember to tip your waitress and please... try the fish.

"Refers to" is a very wide net. I believe we can agree that nephron is not the same as nephrite? Or nephritis, which means a kidney condition? Just as carnelian is derived from carnal because it's often flesh-colored but Carnelian was not named Carnis or Carne.
I think, Mr. Pinto, that you avoided the latter because it's part of your own linguistic background -- which you know well enough to be intuitively aware that such a choice would sound ridiculous in a quest epic, unless the character was there for comic relief.
Regarding women, your point about what the reviewer chose to highlight is valid.

you're right about what is part of my linguistic background... however, I can't imagine that you're arguing that every author should be aware of every possible reference that a word can have, not only in the language that his book is written, but every other language? I have had one reader point out that having a god who is Lord of the Wind as being comical because "wind" can also refer to a fart, rather than air movements in the atmosphere...
Besides, I would suggest that if you were to read the books you would come to realize that even the 'kidney' reference is not so comical after all... I suspect that if I had used some referent to 'cardios' you would have let that go, because the 'heart' is somehow less comical than the ' kidney'...
And you are in fact wrong about the derivation of Carnelian - for, actually, that name WAS specifically intended to evoke "carne" for reasons that the books make clear...
The key point, it would seem to me, is that it's obvious that your initial premise that I have chosen my names carelessly has been demonstrated to be wrong. I would challenge you to read the books and then to come back to me and claim that anything in them was carelessly arrived at...

Except you did not name him Carne. You named him Carnelian. And you would have done equally well by naming Nephron Nephris or Nephren, just as you altered obsidian to Osidian and opal to Opalid.
Also, you cannot have it both ways. You're arguing in the same breath that you very carefully researched the names and challenge me "to claim that anything in them [your books] was carelessly arrived at", but you decided to let this one go by because you cannot "be aware of every possible reference that a word can have" -- even though you're reeling out long reasons why Nephron is/should be acceptable and accepted.
I'm tempted to take you up on the challenge: read your trilogy very minutely and then report on how well you handle the issues you raise. Of course, if I call you on something you will come back with the three arguments you already used in brief form here: 1) I'm a pedantic killjoy, 2) even so, the _true_ subtleties of the issues escape me and 3) the cultures are made up anyway, so connotations are beside the point.
However, I cannot get into stories with long, graphic torture scenes used as novelty items to hook readers. I come from a war-torn land where torture was used until the mid-seventies (and not just abstractly either, but on members of my family). I have seen its concrete results on people's bodies and spirits. I recognize that the subject has a place in fiction and that nothing should be barred from inquiry and exploration. But we each have our pain buttons, from our experiences and memories. This happens to be one of mine.

Jane Anderson

I just stumbled across this review whilst looking for some information on The Third God. I am fairly new to the novels, having just completed The Standing Dead, but so far I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read. I personally thought the review was very good; thorough, descriptive and most importantly, it left me wanting to get hold of The Third God as soon as possible!
However, I must say I am a little bemused at the tone of some of these comments. Athena, if you do have a point to make (and so far, I am unconvinced) I think it is thus far getting lost behind the rather unhelpful style in which you are choosing to communicate your thoughts.
Honestly, you are coming across as needlessly aggressive and bafflingly fixated on something (a name), the use of which has already been explained. You frankly seem to be angry about everything and nothing all at the same time, which is odd.
I really would like to understand exactly what has got you quite this fired up. However,the feeling of your posts is that you simply do not WANT to like these books and so you are wildly going about trying to find any and every reason reason to justify feeling. You have moved through several arguments so far: a) lack of complex, well constructed female characters b) the name Nephron and now c) the torture scenes. Nobody is going to have a go at you for not liking/not wanting to read the book, but don't try to intellectualise it in such a stubborn and, frankly, rude manner.
Lastly,I would also ask you to consider your intentions by bringing personal matters into the argument at the end of your last comment. It felt almost like you were trying to set up an emotional road block to put off further discussion of these issues and these novels in general. I am sorry if this sounds insensitive, I don't mean it to be, and I would certainly never ask you to read the books if you feel you would be hurt by this content. However, you have, once again, outstandingly missed the point if you believe these scenes are "novelty items".

athena, you're right to point out a certain lack of consistency in my method for deriving names. All I can say is that it isn't science but art that we are discussing here... A lot of it comes down to 'feel' - especially names...
as for torture scenes (and violence) - yes, I do deal with these graphically - and this deliberately. I am uneasy with the way in which this kind of thing is added so often for entertainment to books and films... In the Stone Dance, these scenes are never - I believe - gratuitous... The books are intended as a serious examination of violence and repression. They are about our world. The suffering you and your family have experienced is not unique (though please believe that I am in no way attempting to belittle it). While I was writing the Stone Dance, Rwanda happened. While writing The Third God I visited Cambodia and I had always in my mind the Holocaust. I squirmed with horror writing some of these scenes... but they need to be there.
It seems to me that we have been born into a world that has experienced - and is experiencing - atrocities of all kinds. My books actually engage with this, comment on it, attempt some resolution and, I hope, I have done this with morality and compassion...

James Kidney

And what, pray, is wrong with being called Kidney?

Nothing, unless you insist it means Jade and imply that people who point out the meaning of Nephron are unsubtle pedants who don't know their own language.

James Kidney

Athena, I quote from your blog:
Author to the corner Greek or Cypriot grocer: Hey Spiro, does Nephron sound heroic to you?
Grocer (snickering discreetly, like the Berlin residents at Kennedy): Sounds fantabulous, mate!
Author (putting check mark next to the name): One more item deeply researched.

Call me sensitive, but to me that sounds like you're dissing the ancient and honorable name Kidney.
(Mind you, I agree with you about tin ears and leaden tongues.)

Jane Anderson

I don't normally bother to get involved in this kind of online argumentation, however, having continued to read Athena's attack on these books and then her enlightening blog post on the subject....
I feel that someone ought to point out the massive hypocrisy of claiming that the author is egotistical for replying to her serious allegations of lack of reseach, torture porn, etc. It seems Athena, that you simply cannot tolerate someone disagreeing with you, as you claim:
'It was the "owning up" part that prompted this article. He could have said he didn't know, he didn't care, he liked the sound. And we could have laughed or smiled together. But trying to bury me under condescending BS about my own language is another matter.'
I've translated this for anyone who may not have picked up on your meaning due to the subtle nature in which you have chosen to communicate it: Basically, if he had just agreed with me that his life's work was superficial and bowed to my superior knowledge I wouldn't have felt the need to write at length about how awful his books, which I will never read, really are.
Sounds quite childish and petulant when you put it like this, no?
Also, I note that you attack the books again for the use of torture in order to sell. Unlike you, I am actually reading the trilogy at the moment, and these scenes are shocking precisely because they are not used throughout and the reader is encouraged to find them horrifying and disturbing. Two posts (including my own) have called you out on this so far, which of course you haven't responded to and yet, on your blog you write:
'I cannot read violence and porn for jollies or to prove my edgy sophistication. Torture shadowed my people till the mid-seventies and was used on my immediate family. It's also worth reflecting that an equivalent amount of sex in the book (even the vanilla kind, let alone BDSM) would have consigned it to a very different category'.
Obviously, you are very comfortable making such sweeping statements on your own blog, on which, interestingly, you have chosen not to link to the actual review and these comments so that your readers could make up their own minds instead of just listening to your ridiculous posturing.
Even on this very site you have contradicted yourself:
'For me, encountering a protagonist named Nephron immediately turns the entire effort into parody.'
James Kidney then asks what is wrong with being called Kidney and you reply with:
'Nothing, unless you insist it means Jade and imply that people who point out the meaning of Nephron are unsubtle pedants who don't know their own language.'
Anyone else confused?
So, to reiterate, my conclusion is that you simply do not WANT to like these books and, even more than that, you DO NOT like being disagreed with (which is the only reason I can see for your increasingly rude and rather frustrating comments and blog post).
I'm not sure what your intention is by repeatedly attacking this author on every possible front (including his style which, incidentally, must have been a hard task for someone who has not actually read any of the books). Coming back to the matter of ego, you seem to have developed a personal grudge against the author simply because he had the audacity to respond to your attacks on his work. Having written an incredibly biased blog post on your site rather than responding to commenters who have actually challenged your claims makes you seem desperate for approval, and also rather bitter and jaded.


I've posted on Athena's blog, but my comment did not pass - or maybe is still awaiting - moderation.
Athena began her post recounting the famous Urban Legend according to which Kennedy's phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner" can be taken to mean "I am a jelly donut". Which is absolutely not true, but hey, it sounds good! Why bother with research?
Someone pointed her to a Wikipedia article which explains why she's wrong. She doesn't seem to have read the article, but readily fabricated a defense:
The story is true: Kennedy did say “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Berliner” was slang for jelly donut. However, the phrase can also mean “I’m a citizen of Berlin.” The interpretation depends on the mood and politics of each listener. So some were inspired and flattered by Kennedy’s declaration; others were amused.
And this was my answer:
No, the story is NOT true. It is an American Urban Legend.
Berliner is not slang for jelly donut – it is the name by which a variety of doughnuts is known mainly OUTSIDE Berlin (and not IN Berlin) because of their supposed origin/provenience. Regardless, the phrase was grammatically correct, and there’s no possible way a German speaker could’ve understood it as “I’m a Jelly donut”.
Laughter only came because Kennedy thanked his translator (for a translation from German into… German). Read the wikipedia article Brian sent you, or, since you say you’re fluent and competent in many languages, the original article from Wikipedia.De or any other German source.
More importantly, learn to practice what you preach and don’t try to bullshit away minor blunders feigning knowledge in a language not your own.

To clarify further: Berliner is the only way you can call an inhabitant/citizen of Berlin. The -er suffix indicates origin/provenience: Berliner, Hamburger, Italiener, Spanier.
Ich bin Berliner means you either are born or live now in Berlin;
Ich bin ein Berliner (the correct phrase Kennedy used) means you are a Berliner in the abstract sense: "I am one of you, a Berliner"
Berliner as Jelly Donut originates as a shorthand for Berliner Pfannkuchen, and while popular in the rest of Germany, isn't actually in use in Berlin.
Even if it were, the phrase, when uttered by a human being, would present no ambiguity at all. Saying that its interpretation is subject to mood or politics is just like saying that the phrase "I come from Jersey" could mean "I evolved from knit fabric" according to the mood and politics of each listener.

James Kidney

Clearly Athena's linguistic and cultural baggage do not allow her to take seriously a character whose name also refers to an organ that excretes body waste. For obvious reasons, I don't have that problem.
I accept we all have our own baggage. As a kid I sniggered when someone lent me Vance's Servants of the Wankh. Today I'd have a great deal of difficulty with a serious hero called Pratt because I'd expect him to be comic.
I think Athena's wider point as expressed on her blog, that one should take great care in naming people and places in an imaginary world, is sound. We've all read dreck with pseudo Celtic names mixed with German or Latin names. Usually it's a sign of a greater malaise: sloppy world building, poor characters and bad plotting. Names are more than just labels. They have meaning, even if in everyday life that meaning has been eroded by the passage of time and linguistic change.
However, Athena seems fixated on damning Ricardo Pinto for no obvious reason other than that he had the temerity to make a courteous and reasoned response to her remarks. I haven't yet read his work. Something about the shifting nature of Athena's argument makes me suspect that when I do I shall find her criticisms unjust. Obviously I can't comment on the torture scenes because I haven't read them, but I shall be surprised if I don't find myself agreeing with Jane.
(BTW, what exactly would be wrong with calling someone Carne? Why would it be "a lethal blow to [Pinto's] work's intended Wagnerian gravitas." Am I missing something here?)
As for the Berliner myth, I guess it just goes to show that in the real world being called Athena doesn't necessarily make you wise.

Hey James,
I just got your message via my site (sorry it doesn't require an email address so I'm responding here.) I actually do like the idea of a character named Kidney. More for a first name, though. And I apologize for the silly joke. I just couldn't help myself. I have to say the way I name my characters would never pass Athena's test. Or Ricardo Pinto's for that matter. I use words I like without regard to what they mean. My characters are named Jib, Wendt, Tritcheon. I'd use Kidney, Carne, Gall, Pancreas, Internal Q. Organ in a minute.
Hang in there all.


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