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The Standing Dead
Ricardo Pinto
Tor Books, 560 pages

The Standing Dead
Ricardo Pinto
Ricardo Pinto was born in Lisbon, Portugal. When he was six, his family moved first to London and then Dundee, Scotland. He received a degree in mathematics at Dundee University, and in 1983 moved to London without a job and bluffed his way into writing computer games for a local firm. Some time later, a friend whose company produced tabletop wargames asked Pinto to design a world. This led to the self-publication of his first book, Kryomek. Further work in gaming, that allowed him to continue writing, finally led to the sale of the three-volume epic The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, the first volume of which, The Chosen, was published in 1999.

Ricardo Pinto Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The Chosen, the previous volume in Ricardo Pinto's The Stone Dance of the Chameleon cycle, ends in medias res with its hero betrayed, drugged and stuffed into a funerary urn. The second installment, The Standing Dead, opens immediately following that moment, and (apart from a "hinge" chapter providing some broad retrospective and a few hints about what's to come) moves forward without any concession to what has gone before -- no the-story-so-far preface, no exposition shoehorned into the first chapter, no convoluted flashbacks. Readers may find this frustrating (be warned: if you haven't read The Chosen, don't pick up The Standing Dead until you do); and I know from looking at reader reviews on and elsewhere that at least some readers were irritated by the apparent cliffhanger ending of the first book. But such reactions mistake the nature of this work. It's not a fantasy trilogy in the conventional sense, but a single novel divided into three parts (Pinto himself describes it as a triptych). In that context, the abrupt finish of Part One -- which closed one phase of the tale -- and the equally abrupt beginning of Part Two -- which launches the next -- make perfect narrative sense.

The Stone Dance of the Chameleon is set in the world of the Three Lands, ruled with absolute and despotic cruelty by the Chosen, also known as the Masters, a hugely tall white-skinned race in whose veins (they believe) flows the blood of gods. It's death for lesser beings to see Chosen faces, which they protect with elaborate masks. The Chosen regard the tributary peoples who serve them (the small brown-skinned Plainsmen and the larger black-skinned Maruli) as debased savages, little more than animals, and treat them, by divine right, as slaves.

In the novel's first volume, Carnelian, son of one of the Houses of the Great (Chosen society is divided by many nuances of rank and blood), returned from exile with his father -- who, long distant from the bitter factional struggles of Chosen politics, was judged an appropriate choice to oversee the interregnum between the death of the present Emperor and the election of a new. Raised apart from Chosen other than his father (a man unusually compassionate in his treatment of his servants, prone to neither the cruelties nor the excesses of other Masters), Carnelian knew almost nothing of the Chosen's Guarded Land or of their opulent capital, Osrakum, and found himself both entranced and horrified by the strange new world unfolding before him. In Osrakum, Carnelian met and fell in love with another Master, Osidian; only later did he discover that Osidian was really one of the Jade Lord Twins, rivals for the Emperorship. Betrayed by his brother's faction, Osidian was kidnapped, and Carnelian along with him -- both of them closed into funerary urns and left to die.

As the second volume opens, Carnelian and Osidian are discovered by the legionary in charge of disposing of the urns, who illicitly opens them in search of goods to steal and sell. Terrified of these Masters, yet knowing himself doomed for having seen their uncovered faces, the legionary decides to take them south, beyond the Guarded Land, and try to sell them there. But the slavers whom he persuades to help him are raided by a band of Plainsmen, returning from escorting their annual flesh tithe to Osrakum; and Carnelian and Osidian are set free. Though Carnelian could go back to Osrakum, return would mean death for Osidian. To save Osidian's life, Carnelian begs the Plainsmen (who, by a miracle, speak Ochre, the language taught to him by his childhood nurse) to bring the two of them along. Eluding Chosen pursuit, they flee the Guarded Land, and move south into the vast expanses of the Earthsky, where the many tribes of the Plainsmen live.

The Ochre raiding party (who were deeply divided on whether to carry the two Masters with them, and did so mainly out of panic and extremity), bring Carnelian and Osidian back to their tribe. Some of the tribal elders want to kill them outright, but others, awed and terrified by the god-like aura of the Chosen (and also by the birthmark on Osidian's forehead -- "as if the Skyfather himself kissed his brow") fear to shed their blood. Allowed, reluctantly, to remain, Carnelian and Osidian are accepted into the hearth of Akaisha, mother of ex-legionary Fern, with whom Carnelian has begun to form a friendship. As Carnelian learns to know the Ochre, he comes to love these people and their ways. But Osidian, a Master to the core, can't see them as anything but barbarians and slaves, nor is he willing to give up his divine birthright. Darkly, he plots revenge, and begins a campaign of violence, betrayal, and corruption designed to break the Plainsmen's traditional social bonds and forge these utterly unwarlike people into an army to challenge the Chosen.

The Chosen introduced the reader to Chosen society, in all its hallucinatory strangeness, beauty, and violence. Some critics found the book too slow, too self-indulgent in its lavish detail; nevertheless, it's a hypnotic journey, a portrait of an invented world that's not only fascinating and magnificent (and occasionally horrifying) but truly alien. One can recognize in Pinto's setting the influence of various real-world cultures, especially those of ancient South America; but there's no sense whatever of derivativeness, and the whole is genuinely unfamiliar. Any writer who has ever attempted world building will know how difficult this is to achieve.

The Standing Dead introduces a different part of Pinto's world, the Earthsky. There couldn't be a greater contrast with what has gone before. The Ochre are a gentle and loving people, who honor the earth and sky as mother and father. Where the Chosen seek absolute dominance over their environment, molding their surroundings to reflect their needs and certainties, the Ochre's environment dominates them absolutely, and their lives and beliefs are controlled by its rhythms. This is a familiar set of oppositions, but the way Pinto works them out is not familiar at all. The Ochre's world, with its vast fern plains, its enormous herds of saurians, and its violent seasons, is as alien in its way as that of the Chosen; and their customs, which spring organically from this environment, are just as fascinating and strange (and portrayed with equal immediacy and vividness). Pinto takes care not to turn the Ochre into conventional noble savages -- they're as prone to rivalry and ignorance and ill-will as any group of people (and, potentially, as corruptible). Their essential goodness also serves a thematic purpose, in its contrast not just to the society of the Chosen but to that of the Maruli (whom the Plainsmen encounter toward the end of the book) with their gruesome religion of darkness and death.

As before, Carnelian is the camera through which all of this unfolds. He's both hero and narrative device, a player in the action but also a way to convey Pinto's complicated setting to the reader. A good portion of The Standing Dead is devoted to demonstrating the Ochre's lifestyle through his experience of it; this is done, however, in a way that moves the story suspensefully along, as the Masters' presence creates strain among the Ochre and the rift between Osidian and Carnelian grows. Too, this detailed portrait of the Ochre's customs is essential to what comes later, for when Osidian finally puts his dark plan into action, he uses those very customs to disrupt, corrupt, and finally remake the Ochre in his own image. The process of this betrayal is powerfully portrayed, a journey from innocence to debasement that has the weight and inevitability of real tragedy. It's also a subtle examination of the ambiguities of oppression -- for as ruthlessly as they're manipulated by Osidian, the Ochre willingly participate in their own corruption, and show little compassion toward the people that they, in their turn, destroy.

Though the previous book featured complex characterizations, the setting was the star, and all the players were dominated by their circumstances. In The Standing Dead, by contrast, character is the pivot on which the action turns -- particularly Osidian's inability to see the world except through the eyes of a Master, his dark obsession with revenge, and the growth of his mad belief in a divine destiny. Other characters are also very fine -- Fern, the ex-legionary with whom Carnelian begins to fall in love; Poppy, the orphan he befriends; Akaisha, the Ochre hearthmother who takes Carnelian and Osidian in. Most central, of course, is Carnelian himself. He's an immensely sympathetic protagonist; his growing love for the Ochre and his repudiation of his own kind are both moving and believable (and well-grounded in the action of the previous book), as is his increasing repugnance for Osidian's behavior, complicated by the love and loyalty he still feels for his one-time lover. However, he remains a somewhat passive character, acting upon more than acting. While this made good sense in The Chosen, by the end of The Standing Dead it has grown somewhat problematic: his failure to take a firm stand against Osidian has begun to feel like waffling, and his doubts (in the absence of action) seem repetitive. Hopefully in the final volume he will start to act more decisively.

Readers who found the previous book slow may like this one better, with its greater focus on action and tight plotting; while for those (like me) who adored the shimmering, baroque detail of The Chosen, there's an equally entrancing feast of strangeness, wonder, and horror. Without doubt this is one of the most fascinating and original series I've read in recent years. If the final volume fulfills the promise of the first two, The Stone Dance of the Chameleon will be a fine work indeed.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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