This was one of the first properly ‘grown-up’ books I bought for myself, at the age of thirteen and it had a huge impact on me; yet I didn’t read it again until 2007 and I’ve just finished it for the third time. Overall, I still think it’s one of the most unusual and imaginative speculative fiction books I’ve read, and I’m immensely fond of its protagonist: a compelling antihero. Bookshops shelve it under sci-fi and fantasy, but there are also strong strains of historical fiction, Gothic horror and family saga. And it’s a fine example of fictional world-building. Over the course of the story you grow to understand the political dynamics of a state, and also its relationship with the wider world; its customs and traditions; its language; and, more than any of these things, its art.
Sario Grijalva is a young and ambitious painter in the duchy of Tira Virte. More than that, he is a Limner: a dazzlingly gifted member of a family famous for its artistic prowess, but scorned for the perceived impurity of its bloodline. Grijalva blood is infused with that of the Tza’ab, desert warriors, who abducted a group of Tira Virtean women a century before. The mixed-race children, reviled by other families, were adopted by the Grijalvas and their intermarriage has rewarded the family with strange abilities. Some men, like Sario, prove to be sterile and yet simultaneously blessed with searing artistic vision. These, the Gifted – known by the golden keys they wear around their necks – form the ranks of the Viehos Fratos, the inner circle which rules the family. Seeking to cautiously ease their family back into power, they need Sario and his brilliance, but they also fear him – and none of them know if he can be gentled.
Sario himself is one step ahead: learning more about the connection between Tza’ab and Grijalva, he begins to realise that the family’s artistic practices have greater scope and power than any of the Viehos Fratos imagine. This knowledge can give him influence even beyond that offered by the coveted post of the Duke’s Lord Limner, and he has no intention of being controlled. His cousin Saavedra, a talented painter in her own right, is the only one who exercises any sway over him, but he loses even her when she becomes the mistress of the Duke’s heir, Alejandro. Driven by a powerful combination of arrogance, ambition and jealousy, Sario marshals all his artistic skill to protect Saavedra from her own choices. He cannot allow her to let her talent wither in the name of a passing love affair and so he takes steps to keep her safe – and waiting for him.
That barely scratches the surface, but I don’t want to say too much in order to avoid spoilers. Everything is built up carefully and naturally: the book eventually spans four centuries of the duchy’s history and captures larger social forces at work as well as following the intertwined fortunes of the do’ Verrada Dukes and the Grijalvas. No doubt there are places where the book would have benefited from a little more editing, which might have brought it below the 1,000 page mark, but I find it difficult to criticise that too much, because the extra detail all helps to bring the world of Tira Virte to life.
Art plays a magnificently large part: this is a world where births, marriages, deaths and important transactions are recorded not in written form but in paintings, complete with elaborate symbolism. The authors relish the opportunity to describe the pictures which tie the storylines together: the book begins and ends with extracts from the guidebook to the Palasso’s gallery, which set the scene and tell us some of the history we need to know. We also visit the gallery at the beginning of each of the three sections of the novel, keeping us grounded in our sense of place. And the authors even go to the trouble of creating a history of art for their world: across the four hundred years of the story, the changing painting styles evoke the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and Romantic. There’s a real sense of engagement throughout with the technicalities of painting: the making of paints, the smell of solvents and chalks, the sketching and studying.
It’s a tribute to the skills of the three authors that the completed work flows so smoothly. Until I was preparing this post, I’d always thought that the authors wrote in the order in which their names appear, and that Melanie Rawn wrote the first part. I now discover that I’m wrong and that the opening section, my favourite, is actually Jennifer Roberson’s work. Her elegant and elaborate style is perfect for the 16th-century feel of the first part, creating a world that is sumptuous both in language and in surroundings. Rawn’s second section, unfolding in an 18th-century-style world, is lighter and more conversational; while Kate Elliott’s final part, set in the equivalent of the early 19th century, has a more modern, vernacular air to it. One stylistic comment I’d make (risking a small spoiler) is that, this time, I disliked the frequent use of the words ‘magic’ and ‘spells’ in the third section. It threatened to reduce the book to mere fantasy, whereas elsewhere the question of Grijalva talent is dealt with much more subtly and, for me, more elegantly, by suggesting a synthesis of talent, blood and craftsmanship brought to fruition by the Tza’ab script of the lingua oscurra. It keeps the mystery mysterious and the consistency of the references binds the parts together, even though the writing style changes slightly each time.
I have an edition with the cover designed by Michael Whelan, which I’ve always loved. In fact, it was probably the cover that made me buy the book in the first place. The figure of Sario is a self-portrait of Whelan, which is a wonderfully post-modern comment on the cover artist’s job of bringing fictional figures to life (Whelan’s website says that the authors were so amused that they sent him a real golden key as a present). Admittedly he doesn’t look much like my own vision of Sario in my mind, but it’s still a super picture. And it’s true that Sario, in particular, is a character for whom it’s especially difficult to find a face.
Interestingly, the science fiction and fantasy website Tor published a short story on its blog today which had a very similar idea behind it. Melanie Rawn has also returned to the concept in her book The Diviner, originally intended to be one of three books, each written by one of the three authors, to further explore themes from The Golden Key. Has anyone read The Diviner? Or can you recommend any other books by Jennifer Roberson?