The Reliquary Ring
(Macmillan, £10.99, 424 pages, trade paperback, published 21 February
2003; ISBN: 0333989449.)
The Reliquary Ring by Cherith Baldry is set
in an alternative Venice. It presents the saga of a number of families,
whose fortunes ebb and flow while the city faces the threat of internal
discontent and the spectre of a demonic uprising.
As a historical drama it works brilliantly well, telling of Counts
and Countesses and their family Houses, and cunningly told in large
part from the point of view of the lowly servants. I heartily recommend
it to anyone open to the idea of a fantasy/science fictional take on
that kind of story. And if you're not sure, try it anyway--chances are
you'll be won over.
The Venice of The Reliquary Ring is essentially a non-technological
city, but has begun to acquire technologies developed and sold by a
mysterious empire in the north. The most noticeable example is the 'genics'--genetically
engineered beings considered to be less than human. Some of the genics
are human in appearance, and may possess extraordinary abilities, such
as the ability to paint or a beautiful singing voice. Others are created
for more functional purposes and may bear little resemblance to humans.
For the most part, the genics and other technologies are purchased by
the wealthy as servants or playthings.
The Reliquary Ring itself is said to contain "the most holy of holy
relics, a hair of the Lord Christos when he walked on earth." Events
are set in motion when this ring comes into the possession of Count
Dracone who seeks to use it in pursuit of power. The novel is greatly
concerned with the reaction of the Church to this, and conveys a fierce
compassion for those who struggle to understand the true meaning of
the ring and the genics within their faith.
When the city's aged Duke falls ill and the need to elect a replacement
becomes an imminent prospect, Leonardo Loredan emerges as the most likely
candidate to oppose Dracone. Count Loredan, however, finds himself under
increasing scrutiny for supposed genic sympathies. More than this, he
is rumoured to be engaged in an affair with the artist genic Gabriel.
Indeed Gabriel does love Leonardo, but the relationship is complex and
the depiction of their friendship is one of the great strengths of the
The Reliquary Ring is classily written throughout. Perhaps the
best example of this is a sequence in which Gabriel, who has led a sheltered
life, goes out alone into the city. Captivated, he is moved to draw
the people and places he sees. Baldry captures the nuances and details
of this, describing in word pictures those things that Gabriel captures
in his drawings. There are also some brilliant pieces of storytelling.
Notably, we witness the events of the night of a carnival from the differing
perspectives of a number of the characters--sometimes backtracking to
earlier in the evening.
There are two slight weaknesses in the book. The first is that Baldry
seems disinterested in the technological elements of the story. For
the most part, the technology arrives from the mysterious northern empire,
with little in the way of scientific explanation. The second is that
the main villain character lacks subtlety and is interesting only in
terms of his impact on the other characters who are all far more believable
than he is. This is a peculiar lapse because Baldry is certainly able
to portray darkness with conviction in other aspects of the story.
The Reliquary Ring is a thoroughly entertaining book, and presents
a strikingly different approach to the fantasy novel. I hope that a
great many readers--those who would normally read fantasy and those
who normally wouldn't--will feel motivated to visit this "ancient maritime
city" where they will find characters to care about, a clash of cultures,
ethical dilemmas, cool flying machines, genics on land and in the sea,
and demons erupting from the depths of hell.
Review by Chris Butler.
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