The Painter Knight trilogy by Fiona Patton is another series that might make for an excellent serialized TV drama thanks to its strong character development and lack of “sword proof” people (i.e. any character can die at any time). Fantasy is a genre cluttered with stereotypical protagonist choices. If I had a dime for every “farm boy discovers he’s the rightful ruler of the magical kingdom and goes on a quest to reclaim his proper place” story, I’d be rich. Patton makes some inventive protagonist choices, thinking outside the box and shining light on individuals with jobs that must logically exist in a working medieval or early Renaissance society but are rarely glimpsed in more conventional fantasy novels that take place in this sort of setting.
Each book takes place in a different era of Branion, the fictional country of the series. The good thing is, because they all take place at different times in the history of the country, it doesn’t really matter which book you read first, although The Stone Prince was the published first. I certainly found it a relief to realize that although I started reading the trilogy with the second book, it didn’t hinder my understanding of the world and characters.
Branion is a pseudo-medieval/early Renaissance era society with a few major differences to those most often presented in fantasy. The magic in the world mostly comes from the “Living Flame.” Various rulers throughout human history have claimed to be gods, demigods or people who control the power of the sun, (like Louis XIV and several pharaohs of Ancient Egypt). But what if the ruler of a country really did inherit something more than political power when they inherited the crown? In Branion, one member of the royal family will become the Vessel of the Living Flame in every generation. Becoming the Vessel literally gives the leader of Branion serious fire power which no foe can defeat, but it also comes with great risk. If the Vessel is too weak to control the power or tries to suppress it, the Flame consumes him or her, bringing on insanity and death.
The Branion series also features a refreshingly egalitarian universe. There are no separate titles for noblewomen and noblemen, (for example a Duke could be a woman or a man). Best of all, women and men are of equal physical strength! There are no differences in women and men’s roles in society. Both hunt, fight and vie for power. The only difference is women can get pregnant. In Patton’s world, bisexuality is the norm and there is no social prejudice against homosexual relationships. Reading Patton’s books made me literally cry out loud “My God! Why hasn’t this been done before!” Think about it! This is fantasy! If we can have all sorts of things that defy the laws of physics, like magic, frozen zombies and anatomically impossible flying lizards, why can’t there be fantasy where a reduced sexual dimorphism between males and females is part of the world? And yet this is the aspect most commented on by reviewers of Patton’s books on the net! There are mammal species with little phenotypic difference between the sexes and lots of examples of non-mammalian species where the females are larger and stronger than the males. Given a slightly different evolutionary trajectory, humanity might have become a species exhibiting little sexual dimorphism. There is nothing against the laws of physics to prevent it. Who knows, this may be the fate of our phenotype further down the road as technology replaces the need for physical strength.
More than the egalitarian aspects of the books, what really makes them great reads and good candidates for the TV series treatment is the depth of characterization. No character is presented as completely black or white.
My favourite of the series so far is The Painter Knight, the story of Simon, a Michelangelo-like court fresco painter and lover of the current Vessel of the Flame, Aristok Marcellus of Branion. When the Aristok is murdered, Simon must escape with the King’s young daughter Kassandra, the new Vessel of the Flame, to save her life and fulfill his lover’s dying wish. In the midst of it all, Simon must protect Kassandra from the power of the Flame which now burns in her veins and the schemes of her murderous uncle. Simon must give up his own safety and position at court, all to protect the child of his rival, the Aristok’s wife, who provided him with the child Simon could never give him. Simon is a fantastic atypical hero. He is not a knight or a noble and is often afraid during the trials he faces but this only serves to making his bravery and sacrifice all the more poignant and realistic. Best of all, for any artists reading the book, the description of Simon’s artistic process while creating frescoes is spot on and unlike anything I’ve ever read in a fantasy, which tends to be more interested in the processes of creating arm and fighting battles on horseback.
The other books take place in other ages of Branion history and feature characters facing other serious dilemmas that intrigue and excite the reader. Even years later, I clearly recall the emotional problems and relationship conundrums the characters faced, due to the deep level of characterization and emotional impact Patton creates. In the Granite Shield , two siblings are trained from birth to take on the power and kill the Flame-denying king by their zealous mother. They do ruthless things to gain the power, gradually becoming aware of how they have been manipulated as they go on. The interesting thing is that they can’t just kill the current ruler to gain power. One of them, and only one, must attract the Flame into choosing him as its vessel and be strong enough to deal with the power.
The Stone Prince is at its core a love story between Prince Demnor, the crown prince of Branion and his male companion, Kelhanus. After a series of disastrous mad rulers who could not contain the power of the flame, Demnor has been raised to believe that to give in to any emotion is to make himself an unworthy vessel for the Flame he stands to inherit. Determined to remain a “man of stone” to better contain the Flame’s power, he is blind-sided when he falls in love with the Kelhanus, a young man raised to be a courtesan to nobles. The royal family disapproves of Demnor’s monogamous devotion to Kelhanus and tries to force him into marriage as a deadly rebellion seethes on the outer reaches of the kingdom that can only be quelled by the power of the Flame.
The Golden Sword further explores the vessels of other major magical aspects in Branion, each of which have their own power. Cam, born to the royal house, discovers he has become a vessel for the Wind instead of the Flame and joins in a conspiracy with wielders of the other powers of nature to overthrown the corrupt Flame Vessel ruler of the country.
Each book could easily provide enough material for one season of a television and there would be considerably less need for special effects and exotic settings than are required for Game of Thrones. This is also a series that provides deliciously sexy moments for readers of all sexes and sexual orientations. There is also far less unnecessary, drawn out violence that does nothing to service the plot than is present in other books.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!