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The Reliquary Ring

by Cherith Baldry

(Macmillan, 10.99, 424 pages, trade paperback, published 21 February 2003.)

Cherith Baldry's The Reliquary Ring is set in an alternate future Venice--lagoons and palaces, masked balls and music, but also technological flyers, cloning and such. In the culturally sealed world of this cover scanwatery city, human beings are the norm, while genics, designed by geneticists and created outside of a mother's womb, are a reviled underclass that cannot even be touched. The atmosphere of this novel is that of a BBC costume drama, all flouncy dresses, silk and masks, with the men striding melodramatically, suffering, or acting from vile impulse. This is no bad thing. The setting is dense and believable, with ladies constantly being scandalized (the buzz-word of this book) while their men joust in various political forums.

The characters, however, are the hook. The various Counts and Countesses are well differentiated and interesting, but they are not half so interesting as the genics, all of whom are fascinating. Hyacinth is a virtuoso musician, Serafina a determined seamstress who turns into a reluctant, though effective, heroine, Gabriel is a homosexual painter, while Allesandro is to all intents and purposes a human, until he is exposed and reduced in stature in one of the most effective scenes of the book. Then there are the dark and mysterious sea-genics, who are tolerated because they control the sea that threatens to flood Venice. One flaw is Count Dracone, the scarlet-clad villain, who is perhaps too villainous to play his part here; a little more detail on why he became the fiend that he is would have been helpful.

Readers who yearn for well-written, literate, atmospheric fantasy that doesn't feature massed battles and orcs will find much here to enjoy.

Review by Stephen Palmer.

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