I’ve been reading Fiona Patton – The Stone Prince and now The Painter Knight. I’ve had these books for a while; I can’t imagine I actually paid real money for them with those covers, so they must have come from Books and Company or a church or library book sale. I wanted a meaty fantasy, and these were handy. And large.
The Stone Prince was written first and takes place a hundred or so years later. Demnor is Aristok (king) of Branion (Britain, thinly veiled), and the high priest of his people’s religion, which involves an ancestor who made a pact with one of the four elements, the Living Flame, and who bequeathed the Flame to her descendants. The Aristok is always the one to whom the Flame passes; other ancestors have some gift of it of varying intensities, but the Aristok is the one who can wield it to the fullest. This particular Aristok is a loose cannon (an even looser cannon than most of a rather unbalanced family), and makes a good avatar for wildfire. So … why is he called the Stone Prince? Unless I missed something somewhere – always possible, there was a good bit of skimming involved – I don’t remember him ever being called that.
Cosmetically … well, it’s a cover by Jody Lee. I never have liked Jody Lee’s work. Her style is very distinctive: Colorful, a little cartoonish, and in the early stuff at least not very anatomically accurate. She’s not the artist publishers use for “serious” work, but one they want to sell as Action! Adventure! I think I’d be a little peeved if I found out a book of mine was going to have a a Jody Lee cover. (Who am I kidding? If I can get a book published I won’t complain (much) if the cover is done in crayon by the editor’s pet chimp.) I have to say, the main figure here is very well done indeed – he’s beautiful.
But, sweetie? The author calls it “auburn” hair. Not vermilion. I don’t know why it’s necessary to create a gaudy cover that shrieks “fantasy” like this – it’s certainly not a book for children, and how many adults have the backbone to sit in public and read this thing? I’ll admit it – I don’t. But the thing’s too damn long to read in small snatches, and just interesting enough that I didn’t want to start another “public” book – so I used my bookmark to cover up the cover art. That Demnor deserved better. She CAN do it, that figure proves; she just doesn’t.
This, from her website, is lovely. If only she stuck with portraits…
Regardless, it wasn’t a bad book, overall. One thing that did drive me up a tree was the constant switching back and forth through time. The author made note of the time period of the section about to be read… unfortunately, the first time it happened, it turned out that I hadn’t retained the dating of the initial section, in the “present”, so the date stamp of the next section showing it was several years ago didn’t register, and so had NO idea what was going on for a page or so. It was terribly annoying.
Some other aspects of the story took a little getting used to, as well. It took a while to stop having to stop and go back and reread when someone would refer to a female character as “My Lord” or “Duke” or “Prince” – wait, wasn’t that a woman?? – but it’s not at all a bad idea when the genders are completely and unthinkingly equal. In fact, I think this is one of the better examples of a society where there is not and never has been any form of sexism: anyone can be a priest, a warrior, a Companion (concubine, basically, though the author would probably smack me for the shorthand), or anything else, no allowances made and no eyebrows raised – not by the characters within the story, and not by the narrator unable to resist pointing out what she has wrought. Well done, that.
Related, perhaps, is the role of said Companions. After some thought, it comes out as a good idea, if it’s something managed consistently throughout the environment: to try to cut down on the number of bastards running about, nobles take same-sex Companions to their beds. The main character, Demnor, is deeply in love with his Companion, Kelahnus, and it’s reciprocated even though it shouldn’t be by the rules the Companions live by. Which gets complicated when Demnor does his duty and becomes betrothed and, shortly, married. All of which is fine, though yes it took some getting used to for me … but the ease with which all of the characters slide in and out of bed with just about anyone to me pushes the envelope a little too far. No one seems to have any gender-based sexual preferences at all, and monogamy or faithfulness doesn’t seem too highly prized. Kelahnus’s main concern upon the betrothal and its logical culmination is that Demnor will be distracted from him and begin to lose interest in him in the pursuit of his duty – not a high estimation of his own worth or of Demnor’s heart, but then jealousy isn’t real logical. Whether all of this is just among the nobles or extends to anyone is unknown: the common folk are there as background, if that. Which is, in its way, a fault in the book.
Of course, any irrational hatred avoided within the book by removing the prejudices against sex roles and relations is made up for by internecine clashes, madness galloping through the Royal family, and – most of all – religious bigotry. On the one hand is the religion of the Royals, the Triarchy (why it’s a Triarchy when there are four elements I don’t get …) and the followers of Essus (which, hello? Bearded prophet leader of religion? Name similarity? It might not have been best wise to call the OTHER religion Tri-whatever; I persist in thinking Essus=Jesus, one-third of God in three parts, so Triarchy=followers of Essus). They hate each other, in all ways, and it gets ugly. There’s apparently no living together, but of course neither group wants to go anywhere, and apparently pacifism is no part at all of either faith.
Which means that The Painter Knight loses something pretty vital. I’m halfway through, and I don’t have the highest hopes for the ending; no matter what, I will be looking at it in light of events a hundred years or so down the road. The story is about Simon, court artist, who is an Essusiate, lover of the Aristok and rescuer of the Aristok’s daughter when her father is assassinated. It is about his peril-fraught mission to keep the child out of the hands of her mother’s brother, who has killed her father and doesn’t intend nice things for her.
There are three directions I need to go with this … The first is the one I already began: Simon, as mentioned, is an Essusiate. He and his family and some Essusiate friends are working very hard to help the Triarchic Aristok, and it is made clear that their god, Essus himself, is watching over the girl – it’s not just a matter of Simon needing to help the daughter of his dead friend and lover. And yet, having just read the preceding book which involves much later events, I know that relations between the religions are no better in this book’s future. If anything, they’re worse. So it is with a feeling of futility that I read about all of these good and faithful followers of Essus working so hard to help the little Aristok. The idea is that the kid will be so grateful to them that they spefically and maybe they, their religion, in general will benefit. Well, the kid is only four. All I can think is that either she does grow up into a decent human being and is benevolent to the Essusiates in her lifetime, and it doesn’t last, which is sad… Or she grows up under the regency of someone who makes her forget how much she loved these folks when she was little, and nothing changes, which is even more sad. In the long run, at least, this act of mercy won’t do them a damn bit of good. So … what’s with the deific support??
Another aspect of the book I take issue with is the kid herself. I don’t generally make any secret of it: I dislike children. I worked in too many retail environments to not dislike children. My mother always says it’s the parents’ fault, and the parents are the ones to despise; my feeling is that sure, I loathe them too, but it’s the kids who are the ones being the bloody nuisances, so they’re the prime targets for my dislike. I particularly despise precocious children, like the ones they have on talk shows who at age three can name all the presidents; they are usually far too enmeshed in the knowledge of their own cleverness, and so much of what comes out of them is pure performance with the expectation of the praise to which they have become accustomed. What’s her name, the mini Aristok of PK, is a very precocious child indeed. The chapter I just finished featured four solid pages of conversation between the kid and a somewhat slow adult. Stimulating. Apparently badly written children’s dialogue is much like badly written dialectal dialogue: it grows tedious, and then annoying, and then intolerable.
And another issue: a spoilerific one, this, in part. Simon is captured not quite halfway through, and his “interrogation” includes a brick being forcibly introduced to his hand. His painting hand (not that either hand would be a good thing). He’s pretty unconscious at the moment, which is why I had to put up with four pages of charming childish conversation just now, I guess. Thing is, though, that the book opens in this story’s future: Simon is in his seventies, having arguments with the ghost of a 23-year-old man called Leary and … climbing up on a scaffold to paint. In a couple of minutes it’s revealed that Leary is the nickname for the Aristok (I’m too lazy to go look up his full name, or the kid’s) (everyone has a nickname in these books. Everyone. Nicknames, I feel, are a good thing – a touch of realism. But Everyone. Has. A. Nickname), so I knew chapters ahead of time that he was going to bite the dust (probably would have known sooner, as I think it’s on the back cover blurb, but I try to avoid those for just that reason). And I know now, reading about the worry everyone feels about the terrible damage done to Simon’s hand, that … it doesn’t matter much. As with the efforts of the Essusiates, I already know that in the end it makes little difference, if any. Triarchists (I think I change that word every time) will still hate Essuiates in 100 years’ time, and Simon will be painting in 40-odd years’ time. Whether it will be a miraculous healing by the dead Aristok (though they don’t seem to go in much for healing), or when they put his hand in some kind of cast they form it around a paintbrush (who was it I knew who did that when they broke their hand??), or simply that Simon learns to use his other hand, unless all of that at the beginning is some senile delusion (in which case I will never read anything by Fiona Patton again, because that would be offensive to my idea of storytelling), something is going to happen. The horror of an artist having his hand bashed to pieces is negated from the moment it happens; my attitude right now is “Ouch. Annoying. No worries, though.” Which tends to make me wonder why she would do it to him in the first place … just to create the setup for the defection of one character? Just to shove the brat more center stage and give her the opportunity for childish prattle? Gee. Thanks.
In other words, I HATE time jumps and flashbacks and flashforwards, unless they’re absolutely necessary or very well done indeed.
One more annoyance. (So far.) This book and Stone Prince both focus on the royal family of Branion. Like many royal families, names are reused throughout history. Am I the only one who likes to keep reading the same writer if possible? And am I the only one to be really thrown off by meeting up with a Kassandra and a Mareselus (that’s it! I think. Leary. I think) and a whole slew of other characters whose names belonged to very different people in the last book? Also, it took chapters to stop being startled when the heir to the throne (can’t remember the title of the dukedom, and amn’t checking) behaved in an evil manner, rather than the simply bonkers way of the heir in SP. Maybe I’ve never read a series that jumped times like this within one group of people (after all, one can’t say I’ve read mine, since 99% of it isn’t written yet), but I don’t remember ever having this much trouble adapting.
Did I say SP was gaudy? Pshaw.
PK, in all its glowing tangerine glory (you could practically read by this thing, it’s so bright) with its children’s book dragons and its pouty crimson-haired child and its adams-appley Alan Rickman lookalike hero (I sincerely doubt that even so dedicated an artist as Simon is that he toted a palette around at any point in his rescue mission), makes SP look like the most sedate of Serious Literature. And really? Big blue eyes on the dragons? Part of the expression looks angry – which is grossly undermined by the pink tongue and Big Blue Eyes. This was why I hated most of her Valdemar covers for Misty Lackey: the great huge eyes just automatically throw the thing into the realm of Kiddie Lit. The Companions (WHOLE other kind of Companion there) were described as having blue eyes, and maybe she was just trying to keep them from looking like albinos, but … blech. They’re not the regal, insanely beautiful equines described in the books. They’re pretty horsies.
It’s all such a shame. Her Demnor and the little snippets of landscape visible beyond the dragon’s annoying wings make it clear that these two could have been really beautiful paintings. The landscape is stylized, but attractive. Whether it’s her direction, her preferences, or the author’s, they’re ridiculous. (Seriously, was it a conscious decision for Simon to look like Alan Rickman? I’d love to know.)
The books aren’t bad, despite what all of the above sounds like; I’d say (and probably will say on LibraryThing) 3 or 3.5 out of 5. The characters are a little over-the-top, maybe a little pigeonholed in some ways, but they’re pretty well done on the whole. Except for the kid. There’s a little more bloodthirstiness than I enjoy; everyone wants to go to war. The plot is predictable – except where it really isn’t. I’ve never liked the gods getting directly involved in the action, so that induced a little eye-rolling in me, but she made it work fairly well. My main niggle – as opposed to my Issues – was more with SP than PK: the editor was shockingly slack, but seems to have improved in PK. There were commas misused and missing (along the lines of “She knew that Carolin, her midwife was concerned” – argh), typos, and all sorts and kinds of awkwardnesses that I can’t believe weren’t ironed out at some stage. I always wonder about that sort of thing. There’s personal style – dammit, if I want to spell something the British way I bloody well will, and I won’t have it “fixed” – but the comma mistakes, for example, are just poor writing, and change the meaning of the sentences they’re in. And bring reading to a slamming halt. There are chunks that read like a high school creative writing assignment, in style if not in content. (No high school student had BETTER turn in some anything like some bits. !)
Oh wow. I’ve found another reason not to like Jody Lee. She has no modesty, apparently. Under an at-best-mediocre painting for a Misty Lackey novel, she discusses her motivations and great talent (emphasis and comments mine):
This wonderful painting, done for Book One of the Mage Storm Trilogy, shows Karal … Karal holds a heavy magical tome to symbolize his research on the origins of the storm (She likes the symbolic objects)…
This is such an interesting, beautiful piece, the only painting I did for a Mercedes Lackey novel in oils. I haven’t done another because the amount of fine detail involved was hard to control with a media so naturally messy as oil. (I loved working in oils. Messy?! She can’t manage detail in oils?? She needs to talk to some of my old art teachers: Zappalorti and Davies. I’m gobsmacked.) … My Valdemar covers began with inspiration from Gustav Klimt (Mother of God – if I were Klimt I’d so haunt her…) and this painting definitely carries on that tradition…
I was so hoping when I first saw all of the self-praise that either someone else painted the thing or someone else in the mood to suck up committed the write-up. Nope. Wow. Well. It’s good to be so confident in one’s abilities. Hey! This all ties in to the post title: Blatant Fantasy.
One more picture (I hope these are working) to get the taste out of my mouth: one of my favorite cover images, by Gerard Gauci, from the Canadian edition of A Song for Arbonne, one of my favorite books: