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The Painter Knight
Fiona Patton
DAW Books, 522 pages

Cover Art: Jody A. Lee
The Painter Knight
Fiona Patton
Fiona Patton lives in the wilds of southern Ontario. Her first novel was The Stone Prince from DAW.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Stone Prince

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alexander von Thorn

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A monarch goes in disguise to drink in taverns and brawl in dark alleys. A five-year-old girl wields the power of a god. A heretic artist becomes the most loyal protector of the faith. A respected prophet receives a vision of the future from his god, but he lies in the telling. An assassin, her blade still dripping with her victim's life-blood, becomes an instrument of divine mercy. A highland rebel rides to the defense of the true sovereign. Fiona Patton draws on many of the archetypes of legend, but she turns them all into human beings who don't fit into any clichéd pattern in The Painter Knight.

The author tells another tale in the chronicle of the Aristoks of Branion. It would be imprecise to call this the second in a series, for this story is set a century and a half before the events of The Stone Prince. During the reign of Marsellus the Black, Branion's power is on a rising tide. But in a world where a ruler is only as good as his last conquest, the realm is always at risk from tribal uprising, sectarianism, foreign alliances, and dynastic and political manoeuvring, even at the best of times. Having cowed all adversaries outside the palace, the Aristok Marsellus is murdered while at prayer by agents of his well-loved brother-in-law in a bid to bring the royal line into a different sept of the dynasty. The plan of Ellisander DeMarian, Duke of Yorbourne, is to become Regent for Marsellus's five-year-old daughter, Kassandra, and then arrange for Kassandra's demise at a later date, once Yorbourne has consolidated his power.

But more than mortal schemes are at work here. The child Kassandra is in the study of Simon of Florenz, court painter for the royal palace and occasional lover of the late Marsellus. The power of the Living Flame transfers itself to Kassandra, and Simon realizes that anyone who murders the Aristok in his personal chapel likely has the run of the palace, and likely does not intend well for the child. Simon flees with Kassandra, subtly protected by the power of two deities. From there the stage is set: Simon and Kassandra attempt a desperate flight to a distant noble who has not been corrupted by the intrigues of the capital, while Yorbourne and his treasonous allies try to capture Kassandra while preventing anyone from learning the truth. From there, things begin to get complicated...

There is not enough room in this review to catalogue the novel's best points, but a few can be listed. In one scene, the child sovereign passes judgement over a venal vassal who had fallen in with Yorbourne; Kassandra solemnly orders the miscreant to eat live worms. The prophet priest Rosarion is a blend of conflicts; the "white lung plague" kills the Duke's lover and leaves her brother, Rosarion, slowly hacking his lungs to death, so Yorbourne becomes Rosarion's protector, and then Rosarion becomes Yorbourne's co-conspirator in the plot against Marsellus. But the priest realizes that his efforts to track Kassandra and reveal the thoughts of prisoners cannot succeed; he cannot use the powers given him by his god against the interests of the god's new avatar. So when Simon is captured by Yorbourne, Rosarion helps Simon escape, and then the priest presents himself to Kassandra for secular judgement and spiritual redemption. And there are the colourful performers of the Spinning Coins Tumbling Troupe, the stalwart vassals of the Duke of Kempston, the quiet intrigues of the Assassin's Guild, and many other memorable characters and subplots. The unpredictability and freshness of these characters brings the story to life in a way that few fantasy authors manage.

The whole novel is told within a framing story, a dialogue between the aging Simon and the late Marsellus set some 50 years after the main events of the story. In life, Marsellus commissioned Simon to paint all the walls of a new chapel in the Aristok's honour, and the effort takes Simon's whole life. Marsellus, ever a demanding patron, is not going to let the artist out of the commission simply because of his own death, so the shade of the late monarch harangues the painter as he works. It could be that the author lets the framing story pull her punches in a few places, but there is so much tragedy in this novel that it's appropriate to lessen the impact of events occasionally.

By telling a story out of sequence, Patton lets the reader know that this is not just a single cycle of stories, but tales taken from the entire living history of the realm of the Living Flame. The Painter Knight is an unlikely hero in an unexpected tale, in a milieu as real as any Tudor history. The realm of Branion is an important addition to the universe of fantasy fiction; I hope there are many more tales of this world to come.

Copyright © 1998 by Alexander von Thorn

Alexander von Thorn works two jobs, at The Worldhouse (Toronto's oldest game store) and in the network control centre of UUNET Canada. In his spare time, he is active in several fan and community organizations, including the Toronto in 2003 Worldcon bid. He is also a game designer, novelist-in-training (with the Ink*Specs, the Downsview speculative fiction writing circle), feeder of one dog and two cats, and avid watcher of bad television. He rarely sleeps.


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