May 21st, 2002

The Stone Dance Of The Chameleon: The Chosen

A few years back I was in a literary APA, which included several folk in my friends list. I treated it somewhat like I treat LiveJournal, a mix of descriptions of life with thoughts on books and comics as leavening. So, I'm planning on dropping a few book reviews into this journal. And there's no time to start like the present...

When I picked up Ricardo Pinto's first novel, The Chosen, I wasn't really planning on getting dragged into someone's imagined world. I had a long train journey to and from Paris to stock up for (and as it was I actually used the journey to finish Katherine Kerr and Mark Kreighbaum's Palace and blast through Glen Cook's latest Garrett novel Angry Lead Skies).

So it was the crowded Monday morning District Line that saw the fat green volume leave my back pack at last. Billed as a fantasy, The Chosen's Osrakum and the Three Lands are probably closest to the city of Bekla in Richard Adam's often overlooked Shardik. Similar to Shardik, this is a fantasy without the trappings of Tolkien. Instead, we are thrust headlong into a richly imagined world, one where a highly regimented society struggles to maintain control through ritual and the power of Law. It's a fragile society on the verge of great changes. There is no magic, only cruelty. A society built on Mendelian genetics, breeding a master race, control the serfs through violence and brutalisation, in a harsh world. Costume and custom are all, a mix of Mayan and Shogunate cultures dropped into the vicious landscapes of the late Jurassic. Unlike the last novel I wrote about here, the saurians are only background - food and riding beasts, flying predators - but it's a meticulous background that only adds colour to the dramatic events of Pinto's story.

A pair of the Chosen, exiled to a hostile wintry island with a household of slaves, are called back to the lush closed world of Osrakum to manage the election of a new God. The initial scenes compare the benevolent, indulgent tyranny of our viewpoint characters, with the uncaring, off hand tortures of the Chosen who come to bring them home. The main viewpoint character is an unworldly son, brought up away from the intrigues of court. We follow him as he journeys across the crowded world, watch him as he learns his true place, and the customs that bind him ever more tightly than the ceremonial robes that weigh him down. As the intrigues and conspiracies culminate in the election of the new God, he finds love in the shape of a mysterious stranger - a love that will lead him into danger, and on into volume two...

Perhaps some of the biblical resonances could have been lost, among them the paradise gardens of Yden, the ranks of Seraphim. A sense of the unworldly doesn't need the ranks of Angels to give us some links with our world. What we see is a reflection of our desire for security and perfection - and the price that we pay for it, in isolation, in cruelty - and in the pain that it inflicts on both sides of the master/slave relationship.

I've already compared The Chosen to Shardik, but there are resonances with two other novels. The political message of the novel has the same intensity as Mieville's Perdido Street Station, while the tender depiction of a relationship between two men finding their way in a complex world is remiscent of Delany's Stars In My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand. Some reviews of The Chosen have focused on this relationship, but it's really a minor part of the novel, a hook that leads us into the waiting sequel: The Standing Dead.

The Chosen is a disturbing book, violent and cruel. It's also superbly written, with a distinct feel for place and for ceremony. It's well worth reading.
  • Current Music
    A missed episode of Enterprise