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The Reliquary Ring
Cherith Baldry
Pan Macmillan, 424 pages

The Reliquary Ring
Cherith Baldry
Cherith Baldry was born in Lancaster, England, and studied at Manchester University and St Anne's College, Oxford. She subsequently worked as a teacher, including a spell as a lecturer at the University of Sierra Leone. She's now a full-time writer of fiction for both children and adults. Her children's fantasy trilogy, The Eaglesmount Trilogy, was published by Macmillan in 2001. She has a special interest in Arthurian literature, and has published several Arthurian short stories in which she explores the character of Sir Kay. Other short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, and various anthologies, and her Arthurian novel, Exiled from Camelot, was published by Green Knight in 2001.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Exiled from Camelot
Excerpt from The Reliquary Ring
Interview with Cherith Baldry

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Cherith Baldry's The Reliquary Ring is set in an alternate-world Venice (the city is never named, but all the Venetian landmarks are there) where an 18th-century-style social setting combines with the products of high technology. These scientific advances don't come from the city, however, where the laws of the Holy Church of Christos hold sway, but from the Empire to the north, whose scientists and craftsmen have perfected arts unknown elsewhere. Imperial merchants broker strange and wondrous machines to the people of the city, along with living creations: genics, genetically engineered humans designed to fill specific purposes and tasks. Because the genics are created by men, outside the law of God, the Church doesn't consider them human; as a result genics have no rights, and can be used, abused and disposed of with impunity by those who own them. The humans of the city regard them as abomination, and consider it defilement to touch them (though there are some, like the corrupt and sadistic Count Dracone, who take a perverted pleasure in congress with genics).

But genics, artificially created as they are, are still human, with a full complement of human talent, desire and emotion. There's Serafina, seamstress to the nobility, who was found wandering the streets as a child and longs more than anything to discover why she was made; Gabriel, whose unusually enlightened human companion has allowed him to explore his sublime talent for painting; exquisite Hyacinth, created for music, whose owners see only a clever toy and not the magnificent artist he truly is; and gentle Alessandro, who has learned to pass as human, and lives each day in fear his deception will be discovered. All exist in the shadow-world of the genic, essential to the humans around them and yet despised, daily encountering the ugly realities of ignorance and prejudice.

Then a fabulous object is discovered: a reliquary ring containing a single hair of the divine Christos. The ring falls into the hands of evil Count Dracone, who sees in it a way to achieve his long-held ambition of becoming the city's ruler. As his (literally) demonic plot unfolds, the four genics and their human associates find themselves tangled in its threads, and are drawn into an unlikely alliance to oppose him. But they're struggling for more than just Dracone's defeat. A new age is poised to dawn upon the city -- an age that could forever change the genics' destiny.

Baldry richly evokes her nameless city, its exquisite surface roiled by dark undercurrents of corruption and cruelty that invest even the most perfect palaces with the whiff of decay, and even the most upright noblemen with the taint of vice. Less effective (at least from the perspective of plausible world building) is the rest of her setting. The city appears to be in the grip of a long decline, its great arts (such as the techniques of painting Gabriel has rediscovered) lost, its women often barren or breeding deformed babies -- but the why of this is never really laid out. And though the reader is granted brief glimpses of the Empire and its high-tech manufacturing facilities, these don't do anything to explain the existence of sophisticated genetic engineering in an 18th century setting (in this I'm reminded of Paul J. McAuley's Pasquale's Angel, also set in an alternate Venice transformed by unexplained technological advances).

However, plausible world building is not the point here. The genics exist not for the sake of exploring a science fictional premise, but in order to illustrate the moral/religious question that lies at the heart of The Reliquary Ring: who is human in the sight of God? The city's decline stems from the same source: in their treatment of genics, its people have betrayed their own humanity, and what is human in them suffers as a result. If you can accept the allegorical nature of all of this, you'll be fine with the vagueness of Baldry's alternate world scenario. If not, you may find it tough going.

The book shifts frequently between different points of view, following several story threads at once. I'm not normally a big fan of this technique, but Baldry does a deft job of linking the threads -- in part through the nasty presence of Count Dracone, who figures prominently in each of them -- crafting a delightfully absorbing narrative. Things do fall down a bit toward the end, where the impact and coherence of the climax is diminished by being seen through too many different eyes; but it all turns out so satisfactorily that one hardly minds. The characters are recognizable types -- the proud but penniless nobleman, the sensitive artiste, the loyal servant, the steadfast wife, and of course the fabulously villainous Dracone -- but they're also vividly drawn individuals, particularly pragmatic and resourceful Serafina, the one character who doesn't really fit a stock role. Baldry also offers an affecting portrait of the injustice of the genics' servitude, drawing parallels between their plight and more conventional slavery, especially in the character of Alessandro, who pays the price of "passing". As noted above, this is geared to a religious rather than a social message, but it's a gentle message and Baldry doesn't belabor it (though again, the reader must accept certain basic assumptions that are important for allegorical rather than logical purposes, such as that the hair contained in the reliquary ring really is the hair of Christos).

The Reliquary Ring won't be to everyone's taste. Even readers not bothered by the vague world building may find themselves put off by the generous doses of sentiment, or by the unambiguousness with which each character receives his or her just desserts at the end, or by the chaste treatment of sexual themes -- perverted Count Dracone and a story thread involving unrequited homosexual passion notwithstanding. In these and other ways, this is a curiously old-fashioned novel, reminding me very much of the historical romances (Romance with a capital "R", not romance in the genre sense) I read in childhood and adolescence. I loved those books, and I loved this one, despite the criticisms above. If you're up for a grand romantic journey, if you'd like to lose yourself in a feast of atmosphere and emotion, you just may love it too.

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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