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The Standing Dead
Ricardo Pinto
Transworld / Bantam, 525 pages

Art: Jim Burns
The Standing Dead
Ricardo Pinto
Ricardo Pinto was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1961. At 6, his family moved first to London and then Dundee in Scotland. In 1979, he began a degree in mathematics at Dundee University. In 1983, he moved to London without a job. He bluffed his way into writing computer games for a local firm. Some time later, a friend had a company producing tabletop wargames and asked Pinto to design a world. Eventually, this led to the publication of his first book Kryomek. Further work in gaming that allowed him to continue writing finally led to Bantam buying The Chosen, published in 1999.

Ricardo Pinto Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

"The most elegant system of domination is one in which the dominated are unaware of their state: they believe the world has always been and always will be as they know it; that the order under which they toil is as immutable, as unassailable as the sky."
(from a treatise on statecraft compiled in beadcord by the Wise of the Domain Lands)
In 1999, Ricardo Pinto's debut novel, The Chosen, flew largely under the radar, ignored by most readers and reviewers, except for the foresight of a few publications, such as Interzone. Granted, on the surface it appeared to be just another epic fantasy, one more candidate for attention in an arguably already glutted market. But anyone who took the time to read the novel should have immediately recognized that, despite its flaws, it potentially announced a significant new voice in the genre, notable both for its original, imaginative and at times obsessive world-building, an approach almost anthropological in its treatment of characters and society, as well as its bold focus, within a traditional audience noted for its predominant heterosexual and white-boy makeup, upon a gay protagonist.

In a review written elsewhere, I stated that "if 'God is in the details,' then The Chosen... should be a reflection of divine inspiration." Lavishly depicted, Pinto's building of The Guarded Land and the rigid, hieratical society of Osrakum, with its calculatedly interbred blood lines, exotic religious observances, Byzantine ritual and intrigue, inflexible laws and customs, and the divinity of the Houses of the Chosen, became an exercise as extravagant in its expression as the world the author was creating. Notable both for its pageantry and beauty, the realm Pinto so vividly and closely describes is ruled by the Law-that-must-be-obeyed (a nod to H. Rider Haggard?) and an emperor absolute in his divinity as the living incarnation of God. But beneath all the wonder of ritual and splendor, a grim reality exists. The Chosen rule as divine beings over the Guarded Land and its tributaries, but their governance and support is founded upon the oppression and slavery of the common populace, enforced by corporal punishment and crucifixion, for a subject simply to look upon the face of one of the Masters cause for immediate execution. To guard themselves against such sacrilege, the Chosen wear masks of wrought gold, only to be removed in the presence of their fellows, and even then often subject to the purity of a peer's bloodlines. Of course, accidents can happen.

If there existed a single, inescapable flaw in this debut, it was an embarrassment of riches, the author's detail of description at times seeming excessive, almost as if he were building his world brick by brick. While at times a strength, in accumulation it became a weakness, over time intruding upon the narrative and dominating both characters and events. And it was a quality, I suspect, that may have contributed to this novel being overlooked or underappreciated by readers and reviewers at the time of its publication.

Happily, with the sequel, the author has improved upon his original effort, restraining his exuberant description without losing any of its essential vision or richness. The Standing Dead picks up where The Chosen left off, with the attempt on Suth Carnelian's life, and more importantly, that of his lover, the God apparent, Osidian Nephron, the day prior to his Apotheosis. Orchestrated by Osidian's mother, the Empress Ykoriana, in favor of his brother, Molochite, the two youths are drugged and placed in funerary urns to be buried alive. But as luck would have it, the Ichorian guard in charge of burials has a sideline vocation: parting the dead from their wealth. In opening Carnelian's urn looking for gems and jewelry, he discovers the lad is alive. Rescue appears at hand. But a problem exists: the Ichorian has looked upon their unmasked faces, and the nature of his moonlighting has been exposed. Either infraction will guarantee him immediate crucifixion, and so he flees, taking the two Masters along as captives.

The Chosens' captivity soon and unexpectedly changes hands, as their identity is accidentally discovered along one of the elevated roads journeying south to the Ringwall enclosing the Guarded Land. The change in captors, however, is not necessarily an improvement. Barbarian tribesmen from the tributary realm of Earthsky, they find themselves in the same predicament as the Ichorian: they have viewed the Masters' visage. Also, while the tribesmen may believe that the Masters are divine, their reverence is more predicated upon fear and oppression than faith or love, and their underlying feelings for the Chosen are one of undisguised hatred. Unable to resolve what they should do, the tribesmen decide to try and flee unnoticed into their own country, carrying their unwanted cargo along. Unfortunately, they have already aroused the interest of the authorities patrolling the Guarded Land.

Typical of most epic fantasy, this scenario launches a series of adventures and travails full of wonder and conflict. Untypical, however, is the depth of imagination and purpose to which these conventions are applied. Carnelian and Osidian soon find themselves in a strange and foreign land, populated by a tribal culture, if more primitive, as varied and rich in tradition as the more aesthetically enlightened, bureaucratic and shrewdly governing Chosen. Their experience of their new environment soon becomes a confrontation, not only between cultures, but their own identities, leading to eventual conflict between the two lovers, as one attempts to adapt and even embrace his new found circumstances, while the other seeks to control them through the authority and command of a Master. In the process, the author uses this evolving struggle to explore and contrast the nature of governance, personal identity and awareness, the social compact, and the balancing relationship between man and his environment. And this is done in a manner which is far more interested in the story's evolving characters and cultures, than any pretext for the next set of adventures.

Additionally, the author's treatment of his characters is at once singular and multi-faceted. All are invested with varying strengths and weaknesses, which can evolve and change over time, or become equally betrayed by circumstance. Carnelian's inner doubts and conflicts are especially well handled, with insight and compassion towards the tug and pull of our all too common moral and existential dilemmas. And Pinto is willing to deny our expectations, as in the buildup towards a battle, anticipating the usual blow-by-blow account, but which we finally learn of only from the minimal evidence of its aftermath (for those of you who relish the drama of bloodshed, not to worry, for another battle soon follows, vividly and descriptively enacted). And the conventional reader of epic fantasy is likely to be disappointed by the horrific and grim ending to this novel, as there is decidedly no happily ever after.

This is without doubt the most original and well written fantasy epic that I have read so far this year, and is certainly destined to make my personal best list when the time comes around. Those of you who are unaware of Pinto's work, and who enjoy epic fantasy that offers more than mere action or the typical cast of elves and hobgoblins, would be well advised to look here. Granted, this is an ongoing series, and you will need to read the first book in order to understand the second, but The Chosen possesses its own merits, particularly when compared to the usual run of conventional fantasy, and its successor, The Standing Dead, will unequivocally reward the effort.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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