In the Three Lands, the rule of the Chosen is absolute. At the top of a society they have stratified and subjugated, the Chosen marinate in their ludicrous wealth in the walled city of Osrakum. Their time is spent endlessly plotting against each other and refining the purity of their bloodlines – a project for the ages whose pinnacle is godhood. Never mind the thousands of debased sartlar who toil on the land, or the marumaga house slaves who will meet a cruel end if they accidentally glimpse the unmasked face of a Chosen lord they don’t serve. For masks, in this world, are everything.
Enter fifteen-year-old Carnelian, raised in faraway exile by his father, Lord Suth. Oblivious to his heritage, Carnelian enjoys a homely relationship with his marumaga household, embracing his half-brothers as playmates and protectors. So it’s a shock when three Chosen Masters arrive to strip his island home of its resources for a forced return trip to Osrakum. There, Lord Suth must supervise an election to replace the dying God Emperor. But it’s a long way to Osrakum, and on the way Carnelian will be threatened by the sea crossing, assassins, and his own ignorance of the ruthless world to which he must assimilate.
If Carnelian’s introduction to his native culture is rough, it’s a picnic compared to that of his family. The fact is that Carnelian’s marumaga relations are also his property, and Lord Suth has fatally insulated his son from the full meaning of that power relationship. The other Masters, who exploit vulnerability as a reflex, use Carnelian’s naivety for sport, but he’s not the one who has to bleed. And other people do bleed, a lot, while Carnelian (gradually) summons up a poker face and a little political acumen. This doesn’t always make for easy reading.
The Chosen play the world like a four-dimensional game of chess, both empowered and constrained by the elaborate rituals, rules and lawmakers that govern their every move. Everything is done for show, and every move hides a sleight of hand.The Stone Dance of the Chameleon as a whole is about Carnelian’s attempt to upend the chess board with compassion. To refuse to play, like Suth, is still a move in the game, with consequences for the pawns. So the larger question asked both by The Masters and the series overall is: do we have to play the game in order to beat it?
This is a book that intentionally seduces you with a rich culture, a deep history and a beautiful constructed language. You wallow in the aesthetic, and then you catch yourself in the (gilt, bejewelled) mirror, and you start asking yourself: are those blood diamonds? And then you look more closely at your own reflection, at the garments you wear, at the systems of power and exploitation in which you are complicit in our modern world.
Originally, The Stone Dance of the Chameleon was published as a trilogy, and Pinto’s reworking of it into a septet is a bravura choice, but a canny one. The editing only refines both the beauty and the horror of the text, and the ending of The Masters, once a pause in a longer novel, is recontextualised here as a moment of psychedelic transcendence, leaving Carnelian on the threshold of a new and threatening world. The complexity, both moral and narrative, remain intact, and the message is more relevant than ever before.
The first part of Ricardo Pinto’s The Stone Dance of the Chameleon: The Masters can be found on here. Ricardo’s website gives a wealth of background information on his books. Find more info on The Masters here.