I first found out about the Stone Dance of the Chameleon on TV Tropes, which is how I discover most of my fiction, nowadays. The basic concept sounds interesting. It’s a fantasy novel with no magic whatsoever and takes place in a world that draws inspiration from various cultures and not just those of European origin. That was enough to get me to purchase the first book, The Chosen, of this trilogy.
The plot starts out as pretty basic. The main character is a teenage boy named Carnelian, after the gemstone. He is one of the titular Chosen, the nobility of this world, only he was not raised among other nobles. He grew up on an isolated island with his father and a small household away from most other civilization. This is explained as some form of exile but the details are vague.
Life is fine but then a huge ship appears at the island bearing three Chosen who insist that Carnelian and his father return to their commonwealth’s capital for political reasons. Seems that the current god emperor (no, not of Dune) is dying and that a new emperor must be elected. Carnelian and his father travel across the sea and to the commonwealth.
The first half of this story is basic in plot. The characters need to get from point A to point B. A being the island and B being Osrakum, the commonwealth’s capital. There is a lot of world building, which is not exactly a bad thing. This is a very complex word with a culture that does not exactly conform to any specific human culture throughout history. The technology is reminiscent of a bronze age culture with iron being very rare and valuable. The societal structure is highly classist with the Chosen up top and the various peoples they call the barbarians below. The military organization is similar to the ancient Roman legions.
The culture of the Chosen is at the heart of the book. Their world is full of ritual and pomp. Their phenotype includes very pale skin, blue and green eyes, and a very tall height compared to the other peoples of the world. They are extremely elitist and believe that they are descended from their dualist gods. There is a large gap in separation between the Chosen and their slaves. The gap is so large that law requires that Chosen are not allowed to show their faces to the ‘lesser’ peoples, so they walk around in public with golden masks. This builds up mystique and intimidates the slaves. Any non-Chosen that sees a master’s bare face must be blinded or executed.
Yeah, they’re huge pricks.
Carnelian is aware of his culture and the basics of the law, including the mask thing. But he does not truly appreciate how severe it is until he actually sees it in action. Not having grown up in a world filled with power-hungry backstabbing nobility, he is appalled by the disregard for others.
We also learn that some of the fauna of this world include dinosaurs. Theropods called aquar are used as mounts like horses and ceratopsians larger than elephants are used for hauling large loads and for military purposes. There are also pterosaurs called sky-saurians. These additions have no direct impact on the plot, but they are nice flavoring.
The second half of the book contains more world building as the details of the capital of Osrakum are fleshed out and there is some more politics at play. There were hints in the first half about the nature of the upcoming election. The empress Ykoriana seems to want Carnelian and his father dead and sends assassins after them on the road. The exact reasons for wanting them dead are not explored until later.
One complaint that I have is that Carnelian really does not become proactive until the later part of the book. He (and the reader) are given few details on the nature of the politics at play. He does become more active when he helps his father make deals with other nobles to secure their votes for their candidate for the next god emperor.
There is also a romance in the last, oh, fifth of the book, but it has little impact on the plot. The only thing it seems to help is flesh out the world and to set up an unfortunate situation for Carnelian and his lover at the end of the book. I would say that it feels tacked on but I think it is supposed to set up their relationship in the next book, which I have not read. (Reviewing a single book in a series and be annoying like this.)
The book climaxes with the election of the new god emperor and ends on a cliffhanger with Carnelian and his lover in mortal danger.
The prose is nothing to write home about. It is perfectly serviceable and rarely distracting. There are quite a few instances where the narrative falls short as it describes land formations. If one looks at the available maps, there are quite a few unique geologic formations in Osrakum and the prose offers only the barest descriptions of how they relate to each other as the characters move among them.
There are unique terms in the book and their meaning is supposed to be inferred from the context but this falls short. For example, there is a group called the House of Masks that I assumed was a term for the Chosen as a whole (because they all wear masks in public) but it turns out later that they are actually more like the royal house of the commonwealth. Details like this need to be established as soon as characters start talking about them. I assume that the author was too afraid of info dumping.
Like many a fantasy hero, Carnelian is more reactive than proactive. I know that he is only fourteen years old for most of the book and that most of the people around him are influential adults but that is still a lame excuse. He has little personality besides being an alien in a strange world. We do not know what his hobbies are or anything like that. It is noted repeatedly that he is disgusted with his people’s elitist and murderous culture, but that is not really a personality trait.
Recommending The Chosen is difficult. If you like exploring strange and bizarre worlds then this one will serve well. If you want more developed characters then you may want to look someplace else. One problem with a book series that I mentioned previously is that it is difficult to judge one book in them. It is like judging a single episode of a television show. Perhaps the books get better later on but I am not certain.