As you may remember from my recent post, The Golden Key was one of my favourite books of my teenage years and I could hardly believe my luck when I stumbled upon Melanie Rawn’s recently-published prequel, The Diviner, in a local charity shop last weekend. You might recall that The Golden Key was a remarkably successful collaborative work between Rawn and two other writers, Jennifer Roberson and Kate Elliot. I read somewhere that the authors had planned to write a prequel trilogy, taking one book each (that was probably on Wikipedia: let’s be honest about the standard of my sources).
Rawn’s book is the only one which has emerged so far and it has been advertised as a standalone novel as well as a prequel, so it isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Golden Key beforehand. Having said that, the point of The Diviner is to lay foundations for the world described in The Golden Key and so I think it might be more enjoyable for a reader who already knows the background and can spot Rawn’s subtle clues and references.
Like The Golden Key, The Diviner is set in a teasingly half-familiar world, which is based on late-medieval Europe and North Africa. Knowing this, you can navigate the geographical sweep of the story even though no map is provided (which seemed an unfortunate omission: surely I’m not the only one who enjoys being able to orient myself and track where characters are?). Much of The Diviner takes place in a region which was only mentioned in passing in The Golden Key: the colourful towns and vast sandy wilderness of the south, where sumptuous Arabian-Nights-style palaces sit alongside exotic souks, and nomadic tent-villages flourish in the desert.
It begins in the land of Rimmal Madar, where the Sheyqa Nizzira has organised a great banquet in honour of her old political rivals, the al-Ma’aliq family. As you might expect, it’s never good news when every adult male of a particular family is invited to dinner with someone who used to be their enemy; and indeed Sheyqa Nizzira orchestrates a massacre, wiping out every member of the al-Ma’aliq… save one. The arrogant young wastrel Azzad al’Ma’aliq survives only because an argument with his latest mistress prevents him from arriving at the palace on time. Tormented by the annihilation of his family, he flees into the sands, where he is taken in by the nomadic tribe of the Shagara, a desert people known for their healing abilities. The friendship he develops with them endures after he moves on to the town of Sihabbah and continues into the lifetimes of his son Alessid and Alessid’s grandson Qamar.
As the generations pass, the fates of the al-Ma’aliq and Shagara become ever more entwined, beginning with Azzad’s realisation that there’s something not entirely natural about the Shagara ability to heal and protect. He realises that this talent can be turned to his advantage, but he doesn’t think beyond its immediate use as a way to protect him and his family from Sheyqa Nizzira’s assassins. For Azzad’s son, Alessid, the Shagara talent represents a powerful weapon which can be used in his struggle to forge a nation through trade, diplomacy and, if necessary, war. And for Qamar, who shares more with the Shagara than he is willing to admit, their unique abilities provide the foundation for an entirely new language of power and magic . His life’s work is to enshrine their secrets in a volume for the benefit of future generations of students: students, it should be noted, who will share the family name of his wife, Solanna Grijalva.
Naturally anyone who has read The Golden Key will prick up their ears at the mention of Grijalva and will be likely to pick up on the strangely accelerated aging of certain Shagara men, and the familiarity of their rituals which test the fertility of young men and women. There are also examples of minor characters with playfully allusive names, such as Azzad’s mother Za’avedra and Qamar’s teacher Zario. Rawn knows perfectly well that most of the people reading The Diviner will be those who’ve read and enjoyed the earlier book. Knowing what Sario is capable of in The Golden Key, I jumped to certain conclusions about exactly what Qamar is up to at the end of The Diviner; conclusions which Rawn must have anticipated and which she thwarts with a clever piece of misdirection.
I have to be honest, though, and say that I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Golden Key. For a start, I think the earlier book had the advantage that there simply aren’t many fantasy novels which feature artists as their main characters, and so it struck me as remarkably original. In The Diviner I also felt that there was an awful lot going on; perhaps too much. The reader must keep track of several generations of characters, many of whom have similar-sounding names (was it necessary, I wonder, to name a pair of identical twins Kammil and Kemmal?). On top of this you have to keep in mind the political situation, the geographical spread and the histories of the various tribes and characters. Without a map or some form of family tree, this wealth of detail actually becomes disorientating and means that it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the main plot.
And yet, what is that main plot? You might be forgiven, at the beginning of the book, for assuming that this would become a classic revenge story and, indeed, both the author and the characters repeatedly assure us that they have a burning desire for vengeance. But it is a vengeance that never quite comes to pass, and the unwitting reader could be forgiven for feeling exasperated that the characters spend less time wreaking their revenge on Sheyqa Nizzira and more time breeding horses and learning about Shagara symbols. I think that this is why it makes more sense to read the novel with an existing knowledge of The Golden Key. A newcomer would expect the revenge plot to be resolved satisfactorily; whereas someone who knows The Golden Key will be more satisfied with the gradual discovery of the Shagaras’ secrets.
But on the other hand, a familiarity with The Golden Key and its one strong, well-rounded protagonist (the fascinating Sario) means that The Diviner‘s three main characters feel rather pale in comparison. None of them has as much searing ambition, intelligence, fury and imagination as Sario – and the problem with presenting Azzad and Qamar as dandified playboys is that they do come across as rather bland, self-absorbed characters with whom the reader can only sympathise up to a point. There are also a number of places where the dialogue feels more like convenient exposition than plausible conversations.
Having said all this, I still think The Diviner is a creative and subtle novel and once again Rawn conjures up a thoroughly convincing fantasy world. I would have liked to find out more about the matriarchal structures of her societies, and like all good books I was left wanting to know more about certain places or aspects of the story. I’m delighted to have had the chance to read the book and to return to the universe which Rawn created with Roberson and Elliott – a world that is as rich, complex and plausible as many of the settings you would find in conventional historical fiction.
If anyone has read The Diviner without knowing the plot of The Golden Key, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts about the plot and how you think the book worked as a standalone novel. I think that in coming to this novel ‘blind’, you would end up with a completely different feel for the world and the characters.
Just to finish: when I wrote about The Golden Key I mentioned how much I love its cover, derived from a picture by Michael Whelan; and I was also struck by The Diviner‘s cover, which features a painting by Gordon Crabb. I hadn’t come across Gordon Crabb before, but it turns out that he’s a rather wonderful cover artist who has not only created some attractive Renaissance-inspired covers for books by Carol Berg (has anyone read The Spirit Lens? I’m trying to decide if I would like it), but is also the man responsible for the cover art on my edition of Interview with the Vampire. It’s a small world…