This review originally appeared at sfsite.com in 1997.
It isn't true a picture is worth a thousand words. Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, This review originally appeared at sfsite.com in 1997.
It isn't true a picture is worth a thousand words. Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott grace their novel The Golden Key with far more than a mere thousand per picture. And these are words well worth the read. This book is a fantasy novel about art. Or is it a generational saga? Actually, it is an alternate universe story. Then again, maybe it is science fiction. Or should that be science fantasy? To define it within only one genre is impossible. Suffice it to say that this nominee for the World Fantasy Award is a remarkable book.
The story centers on two families, the artistic Grijalvas who live in the duchy of Tira Verte and the royal do'Verradas who rule Tira Virte. An inextricable link joins the families; all records of births, deaths, treaties -- all forms of human interaction -- are recorded as paintings rather than written documents. Or are they mere paintings? The answer to that question takes the reader through a tale of intrigue, magic, romance, and page-turning adventure.
The key to the story is this: into each generation of Grijalvas are born a few boys with a Gift; they can manipulate space and time with their painting.
THREE IN ONE
The book consists of three parts, each a complete story in itself, with an overall plot that ties it all together. The parts fit beautifully, like a literary jigsaw puzzle that forms a big picture. A great deal of speculation has centered on which person wrote which part of the book, but no authorized verification has appeared in print. So I cranked up my courage, contacted the authors, and asked. With their permission, it is now official: Jennifer Roberson wrote the first part, Melanie Rawn wrote the middle, and Kate Elliott wrote the end.
The story takes place in a parallel universe where Tira Virte plays a role similar to that of Spain, Ghillas suggests France, Tza'ab Rih is reminiscent of North Africa, and so on. The names derive from sources in our own world, such as Merse for England, which evokes the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The language of Tira Virte blends Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Done with less skill, the scattering of so many made-up words throughout the story could have detracted; here it enriches, even evokes wonder. The words blend with the prose and make sense. For readers who enjoy more detail, a lexicon at the end gives the definitions and is entertaining to read in and of itself.
Roberson's opening introduces the main characters, Sario and his cousin Saavedra, two adolescent Grijalvas with the Luza do'Orro, the Golden Light -- a genius for painting. Spurred by his obsessive love for Saavedra, Sario sets in motion a saga that spans centuries. He keeps himself and Saavedra alive by a forbidden use of his Gift.
A striking difference exists in Roberson's style in Part One and Rawn's in Part Two. It works because three hundred years separate the stories. The luminosity of Roberson's prose reflects the youth of the characters and culture, whereas Rawn's elegance fits their maturation. The closer resemblance of Rawn and Elliott's style goes well with the lesser time span between Parts Two and Three. Elliott's chapters do have a subtle difference in feel, one suited to her background as an accomplished science fiction as well as fantasy writer. Her words paint the picture of a world and people on the doorstep of an industrial age.
Roberson's Sario is an angry young man, defiant and arrogant, yet with a vulnerability that captures sympathy. Rawn's adult Sario at first seems colorless. But as the story unfolds she deftly layers on darker hues, to reveal a sorcerer who has lost his youthful innocence, leaving only an uncompromising ambition untethered by moral judgement. Elliott adds new colors, with Sario's growing frustration over the unexpected twists of his life. The authors maintain just the right balance, letting Sario change without creating seams in the overall picture.
Just as a frame surrounds a painting, so the authors frame their stories with scholarly writings from fictional experts who discuss exhibits of works painted by characters in the book. The pictures depict events that precede or follow each story, as appropriate to their place in the book. It is an ingenious device, one that showcases the history of this intriguing world without the exposition becoming intrusive.
The first third of the book has a few places where the dialogue is somewhat opaque. The opening prologue confuses a bit, as well, in that the reader has no background yet to interpret Sario's thoughts about his world or himself. He and Saavedra also initially come across as adults. Roberson writes so well, however, that these are minor points. The next chapter, told from Saavedra's view point, clarifies the opening and gives an effective contrast between the pragmatic Saavedra and blazing Sario.
Part Two stumbles once or twice when characters meant to be sympathetic act in ways that jar with the intended purpose. At one point a friend of the heroine Mechella watches Mechella challenge her rival Tazia. The watcher's catty thoughts about the rival almost transferred my sympathy to Tazia. However, overall Rawn does a first-rate job with the complex relationships among her characters. Her way with words is a pleasure to read.
Rawn's section also has a special poignancy, in that it echoes the real life story of Charles and Diana. It isn't the same, of course; these are original characters with their own tale. What makes it so moving is that the fictional princess attains a happy end to her troubled life. Rawn had no way to know when she wrote her section, so aptly titled Chieva do'Sihirro -- the Key of Magic -- that it would someday offer a gentle eulogy to the life of a remarkable woman.
In Part Three Elliott drops tantalizing hints about the genetic basis for the Grijalva Gift, but never explains it. I wanted to know more. However, given that this novel is set in a society where people have no knowledge that genes even exist, it is perhaps a tad unreasonable of me to wish the characters would break into a soliloquy on the wonders of their deoxyribonucleic acid. I finally satisfied my curiosity by contacting Elliott and convincing her to grant me an interview about the genetics. The essay drawn from that interview will appear as part of my science-in-fiction column in Tangent magazine.
MAGIC AND SCIENCE
The authors set up the magic with scrupulous care. This is no slap-dash of spells spattered across a story canvas; it has the same depth and ingenuity as their world building. They base inheritance of the Gift on genetic principles with a rigor worthy of the hardest science fiction. In an ironic twist, the Grijalvas inherit their Gift the way hemophiliacs inherit the traits that prevent their blood from clotting. It leaves the reader a question to ponder: is Grijalva magic a gift--or a disease?
As a physicist, I was intrigued by how the magic plays on relativistic theory. The Golden Key reads like fantasy, yet within it are lovely allegories to diamond-hard science. The lyrical prose gives the physics an artistic feel, as if spacetime were painted into its universe just as its characters paint themselves and their passions into their own works. How much of it is deliberate and how much derives from the authors' natural intuitive gifts, I can't say, but I do know it evoked for me a real sense of wonder.
Spoiler warning: the following gives away a crucial plot point. Readers who prefer to discover it on their own should skip the next three paragraphs.
Perhaps most innovative is the spell Sario uses to trap Saavedra; he paints her into a picture. Roberson writes fantasy here at its best. Yet the hard science reader will also find a marvelous allegory to the twin paradox of relativity; only three days pass for her while centuries go by for everyone else. Her time "dilates," that is, stretches out, as if she were moving almost at the speed of light relative to Tira Virte. Of course we can't usually watch people with dilated time because of their immense speeds. That Saavedra is visible in the painting suggests another intriguing allegory, that Sario's magic offers a portal onto yet another spacetime.
Saavedra's situation is also a splendid twist on the phrase "frame of reference," which physicists use when describing how people moving at different speeds experience the universe in different ways. Saavedra truly is within her own reference frame. Toward the end of the book, Elliott even refers to her "proper time," a term that not only indicates her proper era, but also evokes relativistic terminology that fits her situation.
The chapter where Saavedra returns to normal spacetime is in Elliott's section. To provide continuity, Roberson writes those few pages, using her style from the book's opening pages. It is a clever technique, giving an archaic feel to Saavedra as compared to the other characters.
The possibilities here for the intersection of fantasy with physics fascinate. We may see more of it; all three authors have contracted to write either prequels or sequels to The Golden Key.
The crowning touch to this book is the gorgeous cover painted Michael Whelan. His depiction of Sario, who holds a golden key, is actually a picture of Whelan himself. Read the book and it will be clear why Whelan's choice to do a self-portrait is such an eerie -- and effective -- play on the golden key magic.
ALL THOSE LOVELY CHERUBIM
My favorite subplot is Rohario's romance with Eleyna, the central character in Part Three. Eleyna's Luza do'Orro--her artistic genius--shines like a star. One of the book's most powerful moments comes when she corrects one of Sario's sketches. He has finally found what he seeks: a student he can mold into his equal. Here Elliott deftly evokes a scene from the opening, where eleven year old Sario, unable to stop the compulsion of his genius, grabs Saavedra's pencil and corrects her drawing.
Rohario seems an unlikely choice for Eleyna. As the Grand Duke's second son, he may be handsome and good-natured, but even he considers himself a useless fop. He knows little about real life, displays no ability to govern, and has neither his older brother's strapping physique nor athletic talents.
After he runs off with Eleyna, a disconcerted Rohario finds himself swept into a resistance movement against his father. His maturation into a mediator and leader, combined with his earnest love for Eleyna, utterly charms. Through it all, whether riding in pig carts, sneaking around after dark, or getting clobbered in a fight, he valiantly tries to maintain his well groomed self. When the incensed Grand Duke kicks Rohario out of the palace for disagreeing with his politics, Rohario's valet laments his going because no one else knows how to dress so well. Then there is the swooning romance of Rohario's scenes with Eleyna: "He was so terribly well dressed that of himself he seemed a commentary on the appalling decor of the room ... she stared, seeing his beautiful clothes framed by ghastly pale cherubim fluttering through a gilt forest of vines and fanciful leaves." Elliott's delightful humor thoroughly enhances the story.
The Golden Key is one of the most absorbing books I've read in some time. I give it my highest recommendation....more