Last winter, after an extremely long delay, the third volume of Ricardo Pinto’s trilogy The Stone Dance of the Chameleon was finally released with the title The Third God. I read the first volume, The Chosen, entirely by chance. I happened across it in a used bookstore and was intrigued by the cover: a trio of men wearing golden masks and elaborate robes, rowing a boat made of bone past a lush, terraced landscape, with a dramatic spire of stone splitting the sky behind them. I was looking for a good fantasy, and I’m always happy to see novels that get away from the standard Eurofantasy template, so this seemed like something promising. Plus it was cheap.
This proved to be one of my most felicitous reading finds of the last several years. I loved The Chosen. It was one of the most immersive, delighful, delirious, and disorienting novels that I had ever read. I eagerly sought out the second book, The Standing Dead, devoured it, and then discovered that the third book had not appeared yet. I had to wait several years for it, then several more months before I finally sat down and read it—and just a few days ago I finished it.
After finishing the trilogy, I was left with a strange sense of discontentment. Much of that was the inevitable let-down of leaving a beloved world behind, which occurs whenever I finish a long, deep read. (I felt the same way after Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which no one could accuse of being too short.) To salve the immediate itch, I set out to re-read the first volume again–partly to simply prolong the experience, and partly to see if some of the revelations and turnabouts of the third book had been properly foreshadowed. (They were.) But the greater part of my dissatisfaction, I decided, was justified unease with the structure and themes of the book.
My verdict, alas, is that The Stone Dance of the Chameleon is a failure. A brilliant, beautiful, original, and memorable failure, but a failure nonetheless.
[The rest of this discussion will be very free with spoilers, up to and including the end of the third book. However, I’ll try to keep things general and leave out most character names and specific events.]
I read fantasy for the setting. Sure, I like characters and plot and language and all that, but when I pick up a chunky epic fantasy I want to go somewhere. I want to learn a foreign culture and hear strange languages. I want to feel like I could bend down and pinch the dirt of the place. And in my craving for literary teleportation, I especially crave that drug which we genre readers refer to as “sensawunda”:
It’s excitement, I think. That sense of excitement, of wonder… It’s imagination, the feeling of mystery that you get when people tell you stories about distant lands, hidden asteroids, secret locations, secret lands where things are strange, and where we’re infiltrators, or strangers. There’s something so magic about the unknown.
Robert Holdstock, Where Time Winds Blow
The Chosen has this in spades. The first book begins in a snowy, isolated hold where the protagonist Carnelian is in exile with his father. Carnelian’s father is compelled (in a way that doesn’t become clear until the last half of the third book) to return to to the walled paradise of Osrakum so he can aid in selecting the successor to the God Emperor. The rest of the book takes the form of a series of journeys from the edge of the world to its center: from the stormy hold to the shores of the Commonwealth, from the sea to the arid plateau of the Guarded Land, across the Guarded Land to the sacred gardens of Osrakum, and finally up the Pillar of Heaven to the houses of the God Emperor. This journey allows Pinto to gradually introduce the reader to the society of Commonwealth, one of the most striking and detailed fantasy settings I’ve ever read. We meet the Chosen, the ruling caste who hide their faces with masks, the sages of the Wise, who give up their eyes, ears, and tongues in exchange for the secret learning of their society, and the twisted half-human sartlar who labor to feed the Commonwealth. We see the teeming, dusty cities in sweaty detail, we travel along roads guarded by bone-girded watchtowers, and we pass through the impregnable defenses of the Three Gates to reach the paradise of Osrakum. We learn the precepts of the Law-which-must-be-obeyed with its terrible and fascinating rituals, feel the majesty of He-who-goes-before when he speaks for the Greater Chosen, and eventually ascend the stone spire of the Pillar of Heaven to the beautiful and dangerous courts where the God Emperor reigns.
Also, there are dinosaurs. In the case of the third book giant dinosaurs with flame-throwers strapped to their backs.
This ecstasy of detail and ritual was like crack to a reader like me. And therein lies the problem: while the book paints the Commonwealth and the paradise of Osrakum in lavish detail, it soon becomes clear that the overall thrust of the trilogy is the fall of Osrakum. And you can’t say that the Chosen don’t deserve it.
For alongside the beauty and complexity of Osrakum is the fact that the whole Commonwealth is built on cruelty. The food production of the Commonwealth is dependent on the brutalized sartlar slave caste. The opulence that the Chosen live in contrasts with the dire poverty found throughout most of the cities. The households of the Chosen are staffed with slaves taken from the flesh tithe–children that all the surrounding lands must hand over as tribute. The Chosen relish in terrorizing their slaves, and they engage in crucifixion as a kind of art form. The Law-that-must-be-obeyed mandates blinding, mutilation, or death to any non-Chosen that sees one of the Chosen unmasked, along with a byzantine system of rituals and rules that reinforces the difference between the sacred Chosen and their subjects. And the whole system is held together by the military ascendancy of the God Emperor’s legions, who alone have metal spearheads, armor and–most importantly–ride dragons (the aforementioned dinosaurs with flame-throwers on their backs).
This wouldn’t be such a problem if the majesty and luxury of Osrakum were merely incidentally described. Instead, Pinto gives us page after luscious page describing the jewel-encrusted hands and brocaded silk robes of the Chosen. Nor would it be a problem if the society described were just ordinarily oppressive. Instead, we get the vast viciousness of the Chosen and the pitiless Law-which-must-be-obeyed. This double-bind demands a resolution as brilliant as the depiction of the problem, some conclusion that meets the readers need for both justice and wonder.
And this is where the book fails. The ending brings justice (sort of), but it has no wonder. And even the justice is tainted, since the fall of Osrakum is accomplished by a massacre of the slaves, a famine that kills millions, and desertification of the Guarded Land. The Chosen fall, but their oppressed reap no benefit.
I spent the last quarter of the third volume in the odd position of hoping desperately that Osrakum would be saved, while feeling slightly guilty for it. But the story nearly forces the reader into that position.
Masters and slaves
Alongside the conflict between the trilogy’s moral and literary loci, there is a marked contradiction between the book’s explicit sympathies and the viewpoints favored by its structure. Carnelian, the protagonist, is one of the Chosen. The other major character of the series, Osidian, is also Chosen, and is in fact a member of the House of Masks, the family of the God Emperor. We see all of the events of the trilogy through the eyes of privileged members of the ruling class, which means our sympathies are more with the Chosen than their inferiors. Carnelian may be unusually kind to his slaves, but he still wears the golden mask.
A related problem is the lack of agency of the non-Chosen characters. The second volume of the trilogy (The Standing Dead) most starkly illustrates this. The two protagonists are forced to leave Osrakum and the Guarded Land, and take refuge with a tribe of tributaries of the Chosen. These tribes are largely independent, but they are forced to pay a flesh tithe of slave children, a tax which they detest but are unable to resist. The overwhelming military domination of the Commonwealth renders any opposition they could mount ineffective, as they have nothing that can meet the power of the God Emperor’s dragon-mounted legions.
Until Osidian arrives. With a combination of personal charisma, military genius, and religious obsession Osidian manages to turn the tribes into a force that will fight his war against Osrakum. There’s more than a whiff of What These People Need Is A Honky about this (though the Chosen don’t read as white, the Plainsmen definitely read as brown), made worse by the fact that the tribes aren’t even fighting for their own liberation, but to restore the deposed Osidian. This pattern repeats throughout the second and third books as Osidian makes a series of deals with various subject peoples of the Chosen, all of whom resent their oppression, but none of which can resist effectively until they’re incorporated into Osidian’s army.
And then there’s the sartlar, the lowest slave caste. They’re the most abused of the victims of the Chosen, and so the most deserving of our sympathy, in theory. In practice, this sympathy is smothered by the fact that the sartlar are presented as not just low but loathsome. They’re called “half-men” throughout the trilogy, and no one, not even the sympathetic Carnelian, thinks of them as fully human. A handful of scenes in the final volume try to backpedal on this characterization, but it’s too little, too late. Only one sartlar character is ever named–in every other case, they appear as a faceless horde, a horde that’s compared to locusts, ants, rats, and maggots. When they play a decisive role in the final fall of Osrakum, it’s impossible for the reader to root for their success.
These narrative elements make the overall arc more a tragedy of the Chosen than a triumph of the oppressed. Such a story has a power of its own, but it’s inherently problematic, and to a certain extent undermines the moral universe that the book tries to present.
One last thing
The trilogy is remarkably short on women, and with one-and-a-half exceptions, none of the women in the story has any agency. There are reasons for this within the context of the novel–the Chosen are deliberately patriarchal–but it was still marked enough that I noticed it. Furthermore, most of the secondary female characters occur in iconic Mother roles: Ebeny, Akaisha, and Kor are almost pure archetype, and only Ykoriana has enough complexity to be a real character.
I still loved the trilogy, and highly recommend it. Don’t let my griping keep you from reading it.