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The Stone Prince
Fiona Patton
DAW Books, 544 pages

The Stone Prince
Fiona Patton
Fiona Patton lives in the wilds of southern Ontario. Her second novel is The Painter Knight from DAW.

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A review by Alexander von Thorn

Fiona Patton is the fifth novelist to emerge from the "Bunch of Seven," a Toronto speculative fiction writer's circle which met regularly during the 1980s. After the better part of a decade of research and writing, The Stone Prince is an impressive work of epic fantasy. Fiona had many friends in the Toronto SF community before moving to the country, and she has a tendency to Tuckerize the names of her friends and acquaintances. So some readers will get a chuckle from the juxtaposition of "John Rose" and "Gord Rose" as brothers in the story, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that one of the major characters is named "Alexander." So I will abandon a pretense of objective criticism, and this review will be mostly a fan letter.

But even if the author were a pseudonymous hermit living somewhere in central Asia, this would be one of my favourite fantasy novels. Fiction tells the stories of people, but too much fantasy breaks suspension of disbelief, not from an unrealistic premise, but from characters who fail to act in ways that real people would behave under those circumstances. Lots of authors can write individual characters, but the real challenge is to have characters interact with a believable society, and that is where most authors fall down.

Writers like David Eddings and Robert Jordan attempt to sketch out a world, but the nations are just lines on the map with unitary cultures, lacking the fractal level of detail required to really breathe life into a milieu. Some fantasists take a short cut and describe a geographically isolated kingdom, à la Robin Hobb's Six Duchies, which they describe in extensive detail, but even this approach is limited and simplistic.

It is my strong belief that the best way to achieve verisimilitude in epic fantasy is to apply the premise of magic (as defined by the author) to a setting which has visible parallels to our own world. Katherine Kurtz and Guy Gavriel Kay are two of the very few authors who do this well, and Fiona Patton also makes this choice. This story compares well to the first Deryni trilogy. Patton's Branion, Heathland, and Gwyneth parallel England, Scotland, and Wales, and the continental kingdoms play an important role in the plot as well. The conflict between Triarchic and Essusiate faiths is very much like that between Protestantism and Catholicism, and this creates a genuine late-medieval flavour in this setting. But unlike, say, George R.R. Martin's The Game of Thrones (another book I greatly admire), this is a world where magic plays a central role in the affairs of nations.

Further, although supernatural forces both benign and inimical abound in this tale, The Stone Prince is not about a cosmic, predestined struggle between the forces of good and evil, and Prince Demnor is hardly a messianic protagonist. The hero is a real human being who carries a heavy burden of responsibilities, temporal, spiritual, and supernatural. He makes his share of selfish and short-sighted choices, while many of the antagonists act with honour and sincerity in defense of their lands and traditions. The prince's mother forces him to adulthood with Nietzschean tests of mettle. For the Aristoks of Branion are also Avatars of the Living Flame, a literal manifestation of divine right which has driven some monarchs to greatness and others to madness.

And yet while there are parallels, some of the social divergences are noteworthy. For one thing, this is a world with complete gender equality. Divine favour falls equally on man and woman alike, and the political structures follow that which has been ordained. There are no feminine titles; all are Lords, Dukes, and Princes, whether male or female. This doesn't change as much as one might think, for feudalism was a function of a technologically decentralized but non-democratic political system, and warriors can live by a non-sexist code of honour which resembles most aspects of medieval chivalry. The sexual mores of characters would be well understood by Chaucer or Boccaccio; perhaps this is a somewhat less heterosexual world than our own, but there are plenty of real historical precedents for that, too. Perhaps the only real difference is that same-sex and bisexual preferences are more overt in this world, which may just be a consequence of the lack of specifically Christian taboos. An interesting side effect of this is a social structure called the Companions Guild. A Companion is part courtesan (often same-sex), part advisor, part entertainer, sometimes part spy. One of the central characters is Kelahnus, the Companion of Demnor, who finds himself torn between loyalty to the Guild and love for his Prince.

The vast sweep of the novel fits well with the deeply personal perspective used in the telling. Although there are multiple viewpoint characters, this story is not told from the remove of lofty omniscience; Patton keeps the text focused on a handful of decisive characters, typically whoever is in the most critical situation at the time. The story is told with passion; the author wounds the characters, physically and emotionally, and then rips their emotions from their guts and flings these at the page. The Stone Prince is sometimes not a comfortable read, but it's a difficult book to put aside.

Another dimension to this novel is added with the deft use of flashbacks. For as much as this is the chronicle of the assassination of the Aristok Melesendra and the succession of Demnor amidst civil war and religious and dynastic choices, it is also a biography of Demnor, showing the transitional events in his life which led to his achievement of monarchy and maturity. Flashbacks add the dimension of time to the story, from Demnor's boyhood bouncing on his grand-uncle's knee to armed rebellion against his mother and later great bloody battles of conquest after his return to royal favour. As the prince moves step by step towards the climactic battle against the Heathland rebels, the echo of each step is shown in Demnor's past.

One can only touch on a few highlights of such a rich tale in a short review. It would take pages to summarize the actual plot, as several subplots weave in and out of the primary thread. It is clear that the author shows only a fraction of the depth of detail and background of this world. The novel is a compact 544 pages, but in some ways, it feels like a beginning as Demnor, The Stone Prince, steps onto the stage of history. Fiona Patton writes with clarity and conviction, rare and required qualities for a writer of epic fantasy. I look forward to many more stories of this and other worlds from her powerful imagination.

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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