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The Roses of Roazon
Cherith Baldry
Tor UK, 485 pages

The Roses of Roazon
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: The Reliquary Ring
SF Site Review: Exiled from Camelot

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Since time immemorial, a single bloodline has ruled the land of Arvorig from the capital city of Roazon -- the holiest city in the world, for it was there that God first manifested himself to humankind. According to a legend that only the common people still believe, the first Duke of Roazon won his rule by vanquishing the dark city of Autrys, home of demons and evil powers, and sinking it beneath the waves. It's said that as long as a lord of the true bloodline rules in Roazon, Autrys can never return.

But that once-robust bloodline has dwindled almost to nothing over the centuries, and when the corrupt old Duke dies without issue, only his nephew Joscelin is left to inherit. No one ever expected Joscelin, who has been in holy orders since childhood, to become Duke, least of all Joscelin himself. The land he inherits is as diminished as his family -- plagued by drought and storm and pestilence, riven by political rivalries, menaced by the ambition of the neighboring kingdom of Brogall. Some see in Joscelin the hope of renewal, a just sovereign who will revitalize the blighted land. Others view his accession as a chance to further their own ambitions, for Joscelin, untried and unworldly, has never been trained to rule. And there are those with even darker plans, who know that the ancient legends of Autrys are true, and desire to bring it forth again into the light of day.

A young artist named Morwenna dreams a vision of God the Healer, who commands her to paint him. She presents the resulting icon to Joscelin (to whom it bears an uncanny resemblance) as an induction gift. Potentially, this is blasphemy: according to church doctrine, God reaches down to earth in only two aspects, Judge and Warrior, and there is no God the Healer. Morwenna is taken into custody so the Church can examine her claim; despite the controversy, Joscelin publicly wears the icon, stirring talk of heresy and enraging those who oppose his rule. Eventually an assassination attempt drives him from Roazon. Arvorig is plunged into civil war, while King Aymon seizes the chance to launch his own invasion. Meanwhile, the few brave knights and loyal citizens who have accompanied Joscelin into hiding are beginning to realize that he has powers that are more than human. Is he a saint? A prophet? If he cannot reclaim his Dukedom before Autrys returns, what does it mean for the world?

Like Cherith Baldry's 2003 historical fantasy The Reliquary Ring (to which this novel can in some ways be considered a companion piece), The Roses of Roazon is a religious parable -- this time about a land that has overlooked an essential aspect of the divine, and has lost its own wholeness as a result. This is reflected in Arvorig's dwindling royal line, its drought and pestilence, and also in the barren inflexibility of the Church (religious intolerance and hypocrisy are also themes of this novel), which perpetuated the error in the first place by decreeing that the three branches of the Holy Knot that is God's symbol stand for one God reaching down to earth in two aspects. But Warrior and Judge are not complete without Healer; it's this trinity that is the true meaning of the Knot. Like all new truths, this one is not easily learned, and its emergence threatens to unravel everything -- even, for a time, God's own dominion.

As in The Reliquary Ring, Baldry is interested not so much in plausible world building as in illustrating the religious theme at the heart of the book. The setting, an analogue of medieval France, is vivid, but the added fantasy elements -- the demon city of Autrys, Arvorig's monotheistic faith -- don't a have lot of underpinning. It's never really clear what Autrys's original place in the world might have been, or how exactly the Dukes of Roazon vanquished it. The faith of Arvorig doesn't have any apparent tradition or doctrine beyond the basic concepts outlined above. While this makes for more straightforward allegory (especially the very specific Christian parallels at the end), it makes for less interesting literature, since there's no ambiguity whatever about who Joscelin is and what he'll be called upon to do -- or even, because Autrys has so little fictional power, whether he will succeed.

Also, the plot elements synopsized in the first three paragraphs of this review are tangled in a perfect forest of subplots -- a young monk-knight struggling with his vocation, a lapsed nun searching for her faith, an heiress unhappy with her betrothal, a nobleman desperate to prove himself to his indifferent parents, a reluctant assassin in painful thrall to the evil that is trying to raise Autrys, several others. Any of these subplots might have been fascinating stories in their own right, their likable characters worthy protagonists of their own books. But stuffed together in a single volume, there's just not enough room to realize all of them effectively, and the multiplicity of viewpoints and plot threads -- some of them only tangentially related to Joscelin and his destiny -- has the effect of diluting, rather than supporting, the central storyline. It doesn't help that Joscelin himself is not a very interesting character. When he's first introduced there are hints at complexity, but later he seems almost as flat as Morwenna's icon, a passive vessel of divinity who accepts his fate without apparent doubt or question.

The Reliquary Ring, worked for me, in part because of its richly-evoked Renaissance setting. The Roses of Roazon, with a very similar intent and approach, didn't. Still, there is plenty of color and action, as well as the aforesaid abundance of likable characters, and I'm sure many readers will feel differently.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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