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!

25K!

That’s not Couch to 5 K; it’s the word count of the story of which I’ve just finished the first draft. It’s twice as long as anything we’ve done before, and we’re going outside our usual routine with it too. Normally, we’d discuss a story idea, then I’ll do an outline, after which Angeline does the first draft. I take over and complete the draft, including any bits in all-caps which haven’t been figured out yet. This time, I did the full first draft, while Angeline is concentrating on another story.

She did read the story while I wrote, gave feedback, spotted continuity errors and plot holes, and helped tease out the story’s themes. Her draft will further sharpen the characters’ voices, sharpen the prose and do anything else that make a story ‘work’. Then we’ll hand it to and fro a few more times, and the end result will be that the story isn’t mine; it’s ours. The characters, definitely, are from us both. It’s another story with Sebastien, Ymke and -most of all- Kaila. Both of us have similar ideas of who each of them are, and even where we’d ‘fan cast’ a different celeb in our heads for Ymke, they were remarkably similar in appearance.

At last year’s WorldCon in Dublin, Diane Duane and Peter Morwood described how they were asked to write an opening scene for the Nibelungen film they were working on, “like Conan’s forging or the sword”. What they came up with was two rods of iron, heated, twisted together and hammered until it becomes one bar of strong steel. We like to think our writing is like that; and if the two bars have slightly different properties; well, the visible textures give the resulting sword extra beauty, right?

Photos from Dr. Susie C. Rijnhart’s With The Tibetans In Tent And Temple

“Are you a plotter or a pantser?” is the question often asked amongst writers. We’re definitely plotters, yet that still leaves a lot of room for discovery. Going in, you know what happens, but what remains to learn is why it happens and how it affects the characters. This one definitely affects Kaila greatly, though without the story in front of you it’s of course of no use to go into details. The story incorporates three flash fics I wrote last year during October, using Inktober prompts, but sets them in a bigger context, finding more meaning for them. One of the story’s characters, in a ‘this happened before’ arc, is Kaila’s mentor. This at first gave us the notion that the story was about women: there’d be the maiden, the mother and the crone. However, at 19K words, Angeline having had her first thorough read-through of the thing without framing narrative, we mulled it over and figured that the story really is about family. As we’ve described Kaila, Sebastien and Ymke as found family, the family you choose instead of the ties that come with blood, this was just as well, and it was easy to write towards it.

It’s not going to be bogged down in philosophy though. At least, that’s the idea. The working title is The Wolves of Scorr. It’s actually a title from the Dutch Eric de Noorman comicbook cycle (one of my favourite comics – this year I bought the complete, deluxe, set!). It’s mostly set in the mountains, so I got to do research with the excellent Tresspassers on the Roof of the World, about the early Western explorers in Tibet and the race to Llhasa, and the primary sources mentioned in it, like Dr. Susie C. Rijnhart’s With The Tibetans In Tent And Temple. We also made use of the 1956 documentary Seven Years in Tibet (not to be confused with the Brad Pitt vehicle). Kaila’s mentor is from a region vaguely synonymous to Eastern Europe so we borrowed bits of Ukrainian, Scythian and Latvian (Baltic) folklore and myth. Stumbling upon a cache of cradle songs around the Baltic primal mother figure Mara, Google translate helped me putting together some decidedly dark songs for our character to sing.

The Roseau Stone: the mask of the ancient Russian goddess Jara, circled with runes, or a pitted pebble with a non-rune border? We’re writing fiction, so a goddess it is!

So, what we have is 25.000 words of framing narrative, a few flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, an attempt to make the narratives distinct, and still quite a bit of work to do. As in the other stories set in what we lazily call Wheelworld, there are swords, and there is sorcery. We’re again not quite sure though whether Sword & Sorcery is the right label for this thing. While our adventurous trio is avoiding capture and being tied down, perhaps it’s for the best not to strive for the label too eagerly.

RvS