1. The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliot
I read this book for the first time when it first came out in paperback some time in 1997. Since then, it has been on every "favorite fantasy novels" list I have ever made. Heck, it's probably been on every single "favorite books of any genre" list I've been asked for since reading it. I love this book. I got my hands on the prequel, The Diviner, a few months ago, and I decided it was time to read the book that started my obsession with this universe again before forging ahead (or backwards?) into the prequel. I started reading with trepidation. What if it wasn't as good as I remembered it being? What if I winced and thought to myself, "THAT's what I've been recommending to people all these years? What was I thinking?"
I didn't need to be worried. It's as good as I remember it being.
What do I love so much about this novel?
1. The magic. The system of magic is mysterious and earthy at the same time. It uses sweat and blood and hair and piss, but it also uses arcane script and complicated plant and flower symbolism, and the people who can do it are the ones with the artistic talent and the power to pull it off.
2. The world. We start out in a place very like late Medieval, Early Renaissance Italy. The fragile duchy of Tira Vitre has a tenuous place in a world of larger, more powerful neighbors, and we get to see them move through several hundred years of development in art, in politics, in class structure… it's fascinating, and it's well done. I'm older and better educated this time through, and so I was able to catch all kinds of subtle references to real artworks and events that I missed the first time.
3. The characters. As I mentioned before, the story takes place over several hundred years (kind of like a James Michener book, come to think of it…) but each of the three main sections is populated with interesting folks. We get to see people wrestling with questions about artistic ability, tradition, responsibility, family duty vs. self expression… and with the darker question of what happens when someone Talented and powerful isn't restrained by fear or tradition… and without giving too much away, the (kind of…) protagonist of this story, Sario Grijalva, is one of the most interesting fantasy protagonists I've run across. Ever. He does some truly horrible things, but there are still moments where I felt very real sympathy for him.
Without giving away too much, there are still places in this book that gave me delightfully creepy chills when I read them, places where I wanted to reach into the pages and smack characters upside the head, and places where my heart almost stopped because I'd forgotten how a particular predicament resolved itself.
For a long time, I was glad that this was a self-contained novel. (I'm looking forward to the prequel, but The Golden Key stands on its own.) When I read it, I was desperately awaiting the next Wheel of Time installment, and having a book of this complexity that I could love and then be done with was refreshing. However, now that I've finished it again, I think I've changed my mind. This is a world that I gladly follow through ten or eleven novels, provided they were all as good as this one. And maybe that's the trade off… not many people can sustain a level of excellence in the same world over lots and lots of volumes. (Not to say it can't be done… just that it's more difficult.) And considering that there were three authors working here, not just one, I'm glad we got the one book we did. (The other two authors were going to write stand-alone novels in this world, but Melanie Rawn is the only one who ever did.)
2. The Diviner by Melanie Rawn
This book is set years, centuries, in fact, before the events of The Golden Key, and it explains a great deal about the magic of the desert people that will eventually evolve into the Grijalva family secret. In fact, the Tza'ab aren't even a unified people themselves when the book begins, and it is the work of many generations of one family to make that happen. Three generations of al Ma'aliq men do it out of love for the desert tribes, yes, and a desire to make their lives better, but there is also the darker purpose of revenge on the woman who slaughtered their entire family. There is a lot here about the mptiness of vengance, the connection between people and the land, and the cost of using people one loves as means to an end.
I mentioned above that the magic was one of the reasons I loved the original book so much, so seing the Shagarra move from protective, healing charms to the symbol-laden work that would eventually become the Kita'ab and the Grijalva Folio was fascinating, and it makes sense that their use of magic would change and adapt just that way given the circumstances that they are thrust into.
After having waited all these years for another book set in this universe, the inevitable question arises... "Was it worth the wait?" That's a hard question for me. This is probably not the story I would have chosen to read in this universe. There were places that felt rushed, and places that seemed to be cloaked in mystery and obscurity without paying off, and I felt like the last third of the book should have been the bulk of the novel. Qamar and Solanna Grijalva's story seemed to be the most intriguing to me, but it felt like it didn't get as fleshed out as it might have. Still... I nitpick out of love here, I think. I still enjoyed the book very much, and I think that anyone who enjoyed The Golden Key will find something to like here too.