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The Standing Dead: Book Two of the Stone Dance of the Chameleon Trilogy

by Ricardo Pinto

(Bantam, £6.99, 730 pages, paperback, first published 2002, this edition published 1 May 2003.)

In Book One of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, The Chosen, the youthful Lord cover scanCarnelian Suth travelled with his father, a self-willed exile, from the outermost fringes of the Commonwealth of the Three Lands, to its innermost sanctum, the hidden paradise of Osrakum, where the God-Emperor dwelt in ritual seclusion.

Though by birth a highly-ranked member of the ruling caste of the Commonwealth, the aloof, arrogant, deliberately malicious Masters, Carnelian's unorthodox upbringing far from the torturous power politics and subtle conspiracies of the God-Emperor's court had given him a capacity for compassion and sympathy that his peers all totally lack.

Through Carnelian, an 'Innocent Abroad,' the readers got a ringside seat, observing the grotesque, even breathtaking cruelty with which the Masters rule their Commonwealth. Clearer-eyed than his peers, Carnelian perceived, and abhorred, their ethical and racial fascism. Brilliant, conscienceless, amoral, the Masters had perfected every dominant ploy of psychology, of economics, of military subjugation, to tighten their grip upon a world. Moreover, for many of them, the mutilations and gruesome executions they meted out were not only a naturally ordained part of the world, but a pleasure to be dwelt upon.

The cruel complexity of this novel, coupled with an extraordinary, lushly baroque inventiveness, gave Pinto's story a rich, original tone that really made it stand out from the pack of 'big empire/court politics' books that the genre has thrown up in recent years.

In Osrakum, naive, impulsive and slightly foolish, Carnelian had the mixed fortune to meet, all unknowingly, the God-Emperor Elect, Osidian Nephron, whose lover he became, and at the end of the book, the two youths were kidnapped and hustled off towards a quick and cruel fate.

At the beginning of Book Two the quick, cruel fate turns out to be not so quick after all (though it's plenty cruel) and the duo find themselves not so much jumping as being unceremoniously flung from frying pan to fire and back again. For Carnelian, who lacks a Master's natural arrogance, this is bad enough. For Osidian, who was one step short of apotheosis as the living God of the Masters and Emperor of the Commonwealth, it is unbearable torture.

By hook or by crook, however, the pair survive, and to Carnie's eventual delight fall in with a band of Plainsmen from the Earthsky, similar to the servants and companions who brought him up on his father's distant island, and who taught him to feel for others.

From Osrakum they travel, not exactly willingly, by devious and arduous means, to the Earthsky, a vast plain below the cosmopolitan Guarded Land, where the Plainsmen live semi-nomadic lives, hunting the great Dinosaurian herds and worshipping their sacred trees and ancestor houses.

Whereas Carnelian might be content to live this life, assuming he could finally win the trust of the Plainsmen who (very wisely) loathe the Masters and all their works, Osidian is anything but content. Cheated of his birthright, arrogant beyond reason, cruelly intelligent, Osidian becomes first an irritant in the lives of the Plainsmen, then a radical threat as he begins to twist their culture to his own ends, plotting almost madly to regain his rightful place...

The crux of the book is the way in which Carnelian is caught between his feelings for his lover, and his empathy for the Plainsmen. He understands the loathsome reality of what the Masters are, seeing further proof of it in the Earthsky, where he witnesses the ritual humiliation and exploitation of the Plainsmen, and struggles to bring Plainsmen and Osidian into some kind of accord, feeling for both parties equally.

But does Carnie's compassion make him strong? Alas no, it makes him weak. It is just one more lever by which he can be manipulated. Perpetually striving to do well by those he comes to love, he succeeds only in failing them again and again.

And this, unfortunately, constitutes the major flaw in the book. Carnelian has been forced into a very subordinate mode here. In the first volume of the series he was the naive traveller in a strange world, agape at the oddities and wonders he stumbled across. Perched upon his shoulder the reader shared that sense of wonder, escalating complexity, brilliantly elaborated settings... Moreover, though Carnelian was unsophisticated, he wasn't helpless. In the second book however, though in some ways he is more active, he has become a puppet, endlessly manipulated, and perpetually failing to attain his goals, an experience most readers won't relish sharing.

Then too The Standing Dead is a slower read than The Chosen, and a bit uneven in pace and tone. Occasionally one feels that Pinto is taking easy shortcuts with his characters' emotions, flatly declaring them in a 'just so' fashion.

The rivetting, baroque fascination of The Chosen is missing here, though there's plenty of invention, and some memorable characters. Nonetheless, regardless of its shortcomings, this remains an original and compelling fantasy, complex and intriguing. Worth reading, if more of an effort than the first volume.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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