Ricardo Pinto: The Masters

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.

(ABA)

World Building

A confession: we’re not much into world building in what, in our own shorthand, we call our Wheelworld stories, the stories around the sell-sword Kaila, scribe Ymke and teenage rogue Sebastien.

From a thread on Twitter about King Arthur, which is worth reading: ...the popularity of arthur stories is largely a manufacture of british protestants to invent a pre-catholic, post-roman, christian romantic past that could be deployed in the service of social conservatism as articulated through storytelling, architecture, and interior design.

We find this thought very freeing as authors who have lost too much time to find out “which foods are old world and which new world produce” and are reluctant to make their late medieval-ish fantasy conform precisely to the limits of what tech existed in what analog country in our world. It’s detail-focused, rather than processing from generalities upward. It’s never been our ambition for Wheelworld (the clue is in the fact we’ve begun ironically referring to it like that) to be one of those ultra-precise fantasy worlds where we know every linguistic, historical, topographical, flora/fauna detail.

One of the maps of Ricardo Pinto’s Three Lands, from Stone Dance of the Chameleon

We love created worlds like that. There’s an incredible complexity and subtlety that becomes possible when you truly know every inch of your fantasy world. Our friend Ricardo Pinto, with his Stone Dance of the Chameleon series, surpasses Tolkien in the depth and originality of his conlangs, genealogies and history. His website offers a taste of the background material he created for his magnum opus (and we really recommend the revised, seven-part edition). Our imagination however works the other way round, and we lean into that: broadly, we look at what the story needs, and make the world to fit those needs.

In this approach, we follow in the footsteps of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, whose Hyborian world is overlaid on the map of Europe as we know it, and whose place and personal names purposely echo cultures we know. His Aquilonian kingdom reminds us of the medieval French Aquitaine; when he mentions the people of Shem, we know roughly where they come from. It’s a shorthand for him, using the general knowledge of the readers, so that he can get on with the story he wants to tell. Likewise, for The Red Man we’ve used a version of the northern Netherlands, Road to Starohrad is set in Prague (sort of) and for The Return of the Uncomplaining Child we looked (literally) at Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen. We allow our readers’ associations to construct our world in their minds.

Map of the Hyborian Age by Robert E Howard

If we had made a map of Wheelworld, it would be a bit like that of Europe, though stretched out in certain parts, shrunk to insignificance in others. Our “northern Netherlands” definitely seem to be larger. Our approach has been to unfurl the world under our characters’ feet as we’ve needed new parts of it. None of them had the kind of education, or the kind of things expected of them in life, to give them a king’s or a scholar’s understanding of their world. So that world has… unrendered bits. Their world is like a medieval map, with vague “somewhere over there”s and “here be monsters”.

And things work a bit differently in that world generally. How different depends on what we’d like to do, or sometimes where our trio leads us. We haven’t talked about this before because it always seems like such a cop-out when meticulous world-building is a thing many people adore in fantasy.

Detail of the Hereford Mappa Mundi

Our curiosity lies more in the daily human relations of the world than its full historical record. Oh, bits of its history have emerged and continue to emerge. It’s getting more solid, and parts of it will get very solid as we take you through the rest of our heroes’ adventures. But its life and vigour rely on there being hinterlands; unmapped, unregarded bits. And one theme that keeps coming up is the precarity of civilisation: not even the lofty bits, but the everyday standards, like not murdering your neighbour. In that sense too it’s Howardian.

Granted, at least he did have a map!

A Beginning, And An End

Ice winds strike a flint-edged sea
And splinter flakes that scatter like birds
Trees turn to gold and die
As does all born of the sun
– Origin unknown

This is the opening epigram of “The Masters”, the first book in Ricardo Pinto‘s “Stone Dance of the Chameleon” series. I picked it because it works beautifully as a short poem, but also because of the feeling of foreboding it creates and how fitting that makes it as the opening of a story about a decadent society teetering on the edge of collapse. As a writer I think a lot about first and last lines, and how to make them work. As a reader, there’s a very good chance that the right first or last line will live in my memory for decades.
ABA

“Hear, people of Valusia,” he exclaimed, upheld by the wild beast vitality which was his, fired from within by a strength which was more than physical. “I stand here – the king. I am wounded almost unto death, but I have survived mass wounds.
“Hear you! I am weary of this business! I am no king but a slave! I am hemmed in by laws, laws, laws! I cannot punish malefactor nor reward my friends because of laws – custom – tradition! By Valka, I will be king in fact as well as in name!
“Here stand the two who have saved my life! Henceforward they are free to marry, to do as they like!”
Seno and Ala rushed into each others’ arms with a glad cry.
“But the law!” screamed Tu.
“I am the law!” roared Kull, swinging his axe; it flashed downard and the stone tablet flew into a hundred pieces. The people clenched their hands in horror, waiting dumbly for the sky to fall.
Kull reeled back, eyes blazing. The room whirled to his dizzy gaze.
“I am king, state and law!” he roared, and seizing the wand-like sceptre which lay near, he broke it in two and flung it from him. “This shall be my sceptre!” The red axe was brandished aloft, splashing the pallid nobles with drops of blood. Kull gripped the slender crown with his left hand and placed his back against the wall. Only that support kept him from falling but in his arms was still the strength of lions.
“I am either king or corpse!” he roared, his corded muscles bulging, his terrible eyes blazing. “If you like not my kingship – come and take this crown!”
The corded left arm held out the crown, the right gripping the menacing axe above it.
“By this axe I rule! This is my sceptre! I have struggled and sweated to be the puppet king you wished me to be – to king it your way. Now I use mine own way! If you will not fight, you shall obey! Laws that are just shall stand; laws that have outlived their times I shall shatter as I shattered that one! I am king!
Slowly the pale faced noblemen and frightened women knelt, bowing in fear and reverence to the blood stained giant who towered above them with his eyes ablaze.
“I am king!”

This is the closing paragraph from Robert E. Howard‘s King Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”. It’s not from the best book or best story I’ve ever read – which that is depends on when you ask me. Neither is this from the best story Howard ever wrote. Yet, this is the fragment I’d like to share for World Book Day.
I was in my early twenties when I got hold of the paperback with this story. It was a period in my life in which I went through a lot of personal growth; I had to decide for myself whether I was going to be king or corpse, and so I smashed some old tablets and adopted a double-bladed axe to rule by.
RvS

Ricardo Pinto: Stranger in a Strange Land (revisited)

In the past few years, Fantasy writer Ricardo Pinto has been drastically revising his “The Stone Dance of the Chameleon” – once a trilogy, it will now come out as seven volumes. I expect that it’ll have lost none of its punch, and will only have gained in relevance in the last decade. Likewise the title of the interview Angeline did with him a decade ago for Strange Horizons – A Stranger in a Strange Land: Ricardo Pinto and The Stone Dance of the Chameleons (do click the link to read it!)

Ricardo moved to the UK half a century ago, and still it’s made increasingly clear that those like Ricardo, when all is said and done, are still regarded as strangers, and the hostile environment is making itself known in the bureaucratic hoops that suddenly have to be jumped through, and is bleeding through in the micro-aggression against immigrants encountered in politics, press and society.

Remco’s portrait of Ricardo Pinto

We’re really looking forward to these new editions of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, and over the years have recommended them to several people. There’s so much happening that it’s difficult to describe in a few sentences – “Dune meets Gormenghast,” perhaps? Or LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed” mixed with Bakshi/Frazetta’s “Fire and Ice”? Is it an LGBTQ book? Well, there are gay relationships, but the story is about so many other things too. Is it Fantasy at all, and if so what to make then of the scenes of pure horror? (You’ll never be able to look at the word “render” the same again)

If you like your fiction safe and comforting, and your Fantasy to be about a ragtag band of elves, dwarves and humans on a Quest, you might look elsewhere. If you want to read something like you’ve never read before – look no further! The digital version is now available on Amazon UK and Amazon US; in a few days it should also be available in hard copy! I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the strange but exquisite cover art is by Ricardo himself! For more info on The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, and the new editions, go to Ricardo’s website.

Part one of the new edition of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. Art by Ricardo Pinto

PS: Happy birthday, Ricardo!