Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott collaborate here to create a novel that is very hard to put down--despite its formidable length and flattish characters. What drew me in was the carefully designed world, the totally believable magic, the overall mood, and the centuries-spanning plot. This novel is set in Tirra Virte, an Italy-ish province where all official ceremonies and transactions are recorded not with words but with paintings. I thoight for a moment--"Hey! That can't be reliable! The artist can paint something that didn't really happen!" But then it made me realize just how unreliable words, too, can be. A scribe can write lies as easily as an artist can paint them.
This art-centered world, of course, requires artists. This novel follows the rising and falling fortunes of one family of artists, the Grijalvas, who are almost indisputably the best artists in Tirra Virte. However, they are also decimated by a past plague, feared for their reputed sorcery, and shunned for carrying the blood of foreign rapists in their veins. A young Grijalva boy wants nothing so much as to be acknowledged "Gifted", an heir to the Grijalvas' genetic talents, but the art and magic come with a terrible price.
WARNING: possible SPOILERS
The book is divided into three sections, taking place in three different time periods. The sections are different enough in tone and style that I suspect each author wrote a section mostly by herself, with little collaboration except in world-building. However, I'm not familiar enough with the authors to guess who wrote what.
The first section is my personal favorite because of its brooding and menacing mood. Two Grijalva children, the male Sario and the female Saavedra, witness a terrible punishment meted out by the family elders, and come to realize what Grijalva power really means. The two grow to adulthood--Sario becoming an acclaimed artist and lusting for more and more power, and Saavedra's skills ignored because she is a woman. When Saavedra finds love outside the family, passion and jealousy erupt, and a terrible magic is performed upon her...
The second section is more of a romance, featuring a beautiful, naive, and Generically Nice princess who marries into Tirra Verteian nobility, only to be cruelly rejected in favor of her husband's Grijalva mistress. Princess Mechella does her best to make a happy life for herself despite all of this. I do like the fact that she eventually grew a spine, but I don't like the fact that the "happy ending" to this second story took place with absolutely no action by Mechella. She never even knew half of what was going on. Sigh...
The third section is a story of liberty. The lower classes of Tirra Virte are in revolt. At the same time a young Grijalva woman, groomed to be a compliant daughter and an acquiescent royal mistress, sets out to make her life and art her own. And it is she who notices something strange about the portrait of Saavedra which hangs in the palace. I liked this section, though it seems a little rushed, what with trying to cram the third story and the loose ends from the other two into what is probably the shortest of the three.
I truly enjoyed this book, though it left a few loose ends hanging. I want to know more about the Tza'ab, the Nerro Lingua, and how Saavedra managed to be born Gifted. I REALLY want to know more about what happened when Eleyna's brother scratched the painting containing Eleyna's blood! It's not often I reach the end of a 900 page book crying out for more.