Ars Longa

2011 is my year for reading fat fantasy novels. My shelves are groaning with epic trilogies.

The fantasy genre is fascinating, each book a window on a unique and lovingly detailed world. Some of the stories are action-packed, some … not. It can take more than a bit of dedication to keep reading when a book meanders on for hundreds of pages with very little in the way of suspense.

Sometimes the reward is worth the patience. The Lies of Locke Lamorra gets off to a very leisurely start. For the first 280 pages, the hero faces very little in the way of challenges. Everything seems to be going most delightfully his way. And then the author slams the trap shut. The rest of the novel is massively suspenseful, and a very good yarn indeed.

At the moment, I’m 330 pages into The Golden Key, a non-trilogy by a trio of authors (Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott). At about page 300, it appeared that the story was finally about to pick up, but my optimism may prove to have been premature.

The Golden Key is set in a world obviously derivative of the Italian Renaissance, but that’s okay. Better than okay. It’s a far more interesting setting than the Medieval ox-carts in which more than a few fantasy epics trundle down the road. There’s some magic in the book, to do with painting. Young Sario’s ambition is to become a master painter. He succeeds, even beyond his own inflated expectations. And that’s part of the problem: Sario is an unstoppable force. It soon becomes apparent that he’s an amoral monster — but he’s an amoral monster of a peculiarly circumscribed caste: He doesn’t want to rule the world. He doesn’t even want to rule the duchy where he lives. He only wants to paint. Of course, getting old and dying would be inconvenient; such a fate would get in the way of the endless fulfillment of his ambition. Fortunately, he is handed, on a palette, the knowledge of how to use painting-magic to transfer his consciousness into a fresh young body every so often.

And then 200 years fly by, in one ten-page summary, and he’s still at it. Nobody even suspects that the new master painter is a body-swapping immortal, that he’s the previous master painter come back again.

Along the way to Sario’s first discovery of the power of his magic, there has been quite a lot of courtly intrigue. Sario’s childhood friend Saavedra is the mistress of the young Duke, and they’re gloriously in love, but of course the Duke will have to enter into an arranged marriage for political purposes, so all is not a bed of roses. Also, Sario is jealous, though it’s clear he cares more for his painting than for Saavedra. He tries to convince her to use her gifts as a painter (she’s no slouch herself), but she only wants to have babies. For page after page we’re treated to every detail of these characters’ emotions. Eventually, for reasons that are rather murky, Sario imprisons Saavedra in a portrait of her that he has painted … and there she remains for 200 years.

On returning to the Duke’s palace after a long absence, Sario (anonymous in a new, youthful body) discovers that the portrait of Saavedra is gone from its place of honor in the palace art gallery. Aha, the reader thinks! At last! A plot complication. Now Sario will have to try to find the portrait, and there will be some action.

But no. Upon turning the page, we’re introduced to the beautiful, blond Princess Mechella, who is betrothed to the current Duke (a distant descendant of the one in the first part of the book). Mechella is delighted with the betrothal. Here’s how delighted she is:

“The Princess laughed again. ‘I’ve been in love with him since his state visit! For all these five long years I’ve dreamed of nothing else! But Papa’s been so stubborn — I told him when I turned eighteen that I was ready to marry, but he kept putting it off….'”

She is speaking to her trusted servant, who is worried about the betrothal because the servant knows (somehow — it’s a detail that has escaped the Princess) that the bridegroom is not as thrilled about the impending nuptials as the bride-to-be. So the new cast of characters includes an inattentive King, a lovestruck Princess, a faithful servant who dares not speak the truth, and in a page or two we’re bound to meet the reluctant Duke.

For a hundred pages, the suspicion has been creeping up on me that I’m reading a romance novel. Princess Mechella confirms it, in spades. Oh, dear.

Determined to give the book one last chance, I soldier on for another 20 pages. At the beginning of Chapter Thirty-Five, I finally throw in the towel. Mechella has ordered her wedding portrait painted, even though her betrothed hasn’t yet arrived. (Don’t worry, though — in a few more chapters they’ll be married and have a baby.) So here’s Mechella posing for the portrait:

“In her snowy bridal finery she was sheer splendor from diamond tiara to pearl-encrusted slippers. Miles of thin, airy white silk fell from her tiny waist like the petals of a rose, each edged in cobwebby lace. A starched underskirt supported the delicate material. The bodice mimicked a rosebud, tightly furled layers at the waist rising to cup surprisingly voluptuous breasts before lapping onto her shoulders in little sleeves sewn with pendant teardrop pearls.”

Yowza.

The next sound you hear will be me tiptoeing into the den to put The Golden Key back on the shelf. I’ve got the sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamorra in there. I’ve read the first page. On the first page, the two good guys are in a four-crossbow standoff with two other guys. All of the crossbows are cocked. The four men are standing toe to toe, with crossbows pointed at one another’s eyeballs, much too close to miss. Oh, and off to one side — this is in a harbor — is a ship that’s on fire.

Princess Mechella and her surprisingly voluptuous breasts, or four cocked crossbows and a burning ship. Tough choice. Truth be told, I would like to know how Saavedra is going to extricate herself from a 200-year imprisonment in a painting. (Yeah, I peeked. She does get out, eventually.) But am I willing to wade through the amorous adventures of an entirely new cast of characters in order to find out?

No, I don’t think so. Sorry, Sario. Sayonara, Saavedra.

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