Fiction & Biography

i/xNiASY E PIC RICARDO PINTO The Standing Dead Bantam E‘17.99~ O...

The Chosen, the first instalment in Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance Of The Chameleon trilogy, was heralded by one observer as ‘a new kind of writing’. Certainly, it’s easy to see that the fantasy genre needs one if it is to escape its ghetto.

The likes of Stephen Donaldson and Michael Moorcock may have managed to make their swords and sorcery epics otherworldly and adult in the best sense of the word, but the vast majority of fantasy writing is predictable pulp, based around a boy to man to king progression that ends up valuing heroism over realism and monstrous beasts over decent dialogue.

Pinto’s second novel continues the story of Carnelian, a young nobleman brought back from exile so his father can solve the secession crisis. In this Guarded Land, the Masters rule the surrounding savages of Earthsky with an iron hand. Carnelian is soon embroiled in politics and love before being tricked and carried into the wilderness.

In many ways it’s a standard tale, in which far too many people eat meals ‘as if it could be their Iast’. And one of its key distinguishing features, that Carnelian is gay, could be seen as a rather retrograde step: this male genre, so often uncomfortable with females as anything other than a love interest, could now eschew women entirely. Pinto does not, fortunately, fall into this trap, and Carnelian’s sexuality gives this series a neat twist, particularly when his lover Osidian, who has escaped to Earthsky with him, reveals his darker side.

The pair travel as prisoners with the Ochre, a migratory tribe who hunt and tame the giant lizards that roam their native plains. Soon the tribe have grudgingly accepted them into their hearth, but Osidian’s ambition soon leads to conflict with rival tribes and a sinister alliance with the jungle-dwelling Marula. Carnelian is forced to reconsider where his allegiances lie.

The large-scale conflict that beckons towards the end of The Standing Dead is compelling, but Pinto’s real achievement is the society that this war will tear apart. The Ochre are as vividly portrayed as the Fremen of Dune, and their everyday struggle for survival is an engrossing one. This is a world in which fighting is brutish and short, not long-winded enough to fit in a tea-break. The creatures that inhabit it are grand but believable, in contrast to the top heavy ecosystems that


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characterise many an imaginary world (‘We’ll have some dragons and some ogres and some giant scorpions and they can all eat, erm, sheep, or something’).

Pinto is keen to stress the brutality and the racist ideology that holds his empire together, as well as the complex nature of its pre-feudal societies. Even his more sympathetic characters, meanwhile, are selfish and short-sighted, and before long Carnelian discovers that he is just a pawn in a terrible game.

It amounts to dark, satisfying work which, while hardly heralding a revolution in fantasy writing, does succeed in mixing the familiar with the novel, and the predictable with the profoundly unsettling. This Edinburgh-based writer could actually give the genre a good name.

Shelf life

Classic novels rev/sited. This issue: Bleak House

Published 150 years ago. What’s the story Charles Dickens' most ambitious novel has at its centre the lawswt of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Among the claimants are some of Dickens most disagreeable characters: idle heir Richard Carstone. devious Lady Dedlock. Vholes the unscrupulous soeritor and the mean Smallweeds. Oddly. the key to the case lies in the hands of poor. disease-ridden crossing-sweeper Jo. But the suit is in the COurt of Chancery so long that it becomes a cruel Joke and the disputed fortune is eventually devowed by legal process.

What the critics said The author's friend John Forster gave the book a rather cack-- handed assessment. calling it ‘perhaps the best thing done by Dickens. though ingenurty is more apparent than lreshness.‘ while GK. Chesterton referred to Dickens' WOrk as ‘that most exquiSite of arts . . . the art of enjoying everybody.‘

Key moment In a memorable scene. augmented by one of Phiz's illustrations for the book. 0in. conceited Rev Mr Chadband is found 'improving' a tOugh subject. The tOugh subject is poor Jo who. frightened by the preaching and enquiries that all seem to lead to ‘the berryin' ground'. runs away.

Postscript Richard Carstone's eventual descent into finanCral ruin was based on the experience of Dickens' father John. who spent three months With the family in Marshalsea Debtor's prison in 18241.

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