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Literature / The Golden Key

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The Golden Key is a 1996 fantasy novel written by three women: Jennifer Roberson, who penned the story's first act; Melanie Rawn, author of the book's second section, and Kate Elliott, who finished the work.

Set in what might loosely be described as an alternative Spain, the novel traces a family of painters who, by nature of their Gifts, can influence events around them. In the Grijalva family, the Gifted males are usually sterile and short-lived; the women, who may be gifted for painting, but not Gifted for the particular type of painting that alters what it portrays, are generally kept within the family to produce children. However, one woman per generation is official mistress to the ruling Duke, so that the family maintains its influence at Court. The story develops when a particularly Gifted and unscrupulous Grijalva painter named Sario finds a way to continue living through successive generations in order to paint a picture worthy of his immense talent. As the political and social climate changes, including revolutions in neighboring countries and democratic challenges to the ruling Dukes, the increasingly conservative Sario seeks to hold onto the past, and especially his first love.

Throughout the book, special emphasis is placed on iconography and a set of possibly Arabic/Moorish spells that bend events to the will of the painter. The connection between the ruling Dukes and the Grijalva family is shown to be more far-reaching and subtle than at first appears. The development in painting styles is used as a metaphor for political changes that mirror western European history, especially in France and Italy from 1500 to (say) 1820. The succession of paintings in the ducal gallery (which turns into the national gallery) is the lens through which we see the historical and personal events that make up this fantasy history.

This book contains examples of:

  • And I Must Scream: Sario's ultimate punishment is to be imprisoned in a painting, like he did to Saavedra. The difference is that he is painted into a windowless room with consumable light sources, so that when they go out he will be trapped in eternal darkness.
  • Artificial Human: Sario creates a magical double of a murdered princess at one point.
  • Art Initiates Life: Grijalvas with The Gift have the ability to affect people with paintings, from influencing their behavior to trapping them in it.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Inverted. The epic moment in the cathedral where the crowd stands up and cheers happens when the Grand Duke signs the Constitution, limiting his own power and granting authority to the House of Representatives. So essentially, an Awesome Moment of Republicanism.
  • Betty and Veronica: Mechella and Tazia for Arrigo; Rohario and Sario for Eleyna.
  • Blessed with Suck: The Gifted Limners are capable of changing reality with their paintings. However, they are sterile, prone to crippling diseases, and most of them die well before the age of fifty.
  • Blood Magic: Every Bodily Fluid Magic, actually. Grijalva artists are extra careful with their chamber pots.
  • Body Surf: Sario does this a number of times throughout the book as part of his goal of staying alive long enough to paint a picture worthy of his gift. Unusually, the reason he switches is that the body he is currently inhabiting is usually too old, Sario having taken the then-young body and lived the life of the person with whom he switched into old age.
  • Book Ends: The book opens with a description of paintings outlining the history of Tira Virte followed by a prologue describing a conversation between Sario and Saavedra and Duke Baltran touring the gallery with his son, Alejandro. It ends with an epilogue describing Grand Duke Alejandro II touring the gallery with his son, Baltran, more than 400 years later, followed by Sario and Saavedra's final conversation and a description of paintings recounting later events.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: You can be gifted, but it doesn't mean you're Gifted. The Gifted painters are called Limners.
  • The Dark Arts
  • Dead Guy Junior: Alejandro II.
  • Deceptive Disciple: Sario to Il-Adib. Il-Adib intends for him to take the mantle of the Tza'ab Diviner; Sario has no such plans, and once he learns everything he wanted from the old man he murders him for his trouble.
  • Driven to Suicide: Raimon, when he realizes that his plans for Sario have Gone Horribly Right.
  • Exact Words: Grand Duke Renayo, whose descent from the ruling do'Verrada family is called into doubt, is required to swear a religious oath that the accusation isn't true. Since it is very true, he wriggles out of it by declaring Saavedra's unborn child, the son of a duke who lived hundreds of years earlier, his heir and then swearing that his heir is a true scion of the do'Verradas.
  • Eye of Newt: Mixing their paints with various bodily fluids (saliva, tears, blood, "essence") allows the Gifted Grijalvas to perform their magic. Bits of the intended targets (for example, paint brushes made from their hair) are also used sometimes.
  • Fantastic Racism: The Grijalvas are denounced by the Church partly because of their "evil" practices, but mainly for carrying Tza'ab blood.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture
    • Tira Virte is, roughly, Renaissance Spain; Ghillas is France; the Tza'ab are Moors, and so on and so forth.
    • The church of the Mother and the Son is essentially Catholicism with some emphasis on pagan-flavored local costumes. They also have nuns. The Tza'ab religion is an obvious stand-in for Islam.
  • The Fog of Ages: Downplayed. By the third part of the book, Sario (by then almost 400 years old, via repeated body stealing) is beginning to mix up names and events from his past. More crucially, he remembers key events as he would have liked them to be instead of as they were, particularly in regard to his relationship with Saavedra. He does remember that his romantic rival had a crooked front tooth, though.
  • The Gift: Grijalva Limners are born with the ability to influence reality through magic paintings. The book also deals with the more figurative variant of simple artistic genius.
  • Insufferable Genius: Sario is the best artist there ever was, knows it and doesn't mind saying so.
  • Internal Reveal: The final chapters are a cascade of those: Saavedra's fate, Sario's real identity, Grand Duke Renayo's parentage...
    • After centuries of popular suspicion, the Grijalvas finally reveal the existence of their magic to the world. Played with in that once it stops being a dark rumor, in forty years time almost nobody believes it anymore.
  • It's All About Me: Sario, and later Tazia.
  • Kissing Cousins: What Sario wants, though not what happens.
    • Rohario and Eleyna are technically second cousins. Since they didn't know this when they fell in love and since they can't have children anyway, it's a moot point.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe:
    • Mechella stages a fake tryst with her estranged husband Arrigo to cover up the fact that she is pregnant with her Grijalva lover's child. It's enough of an embarrassment for Arrigo for him to formally recognize the child he knows isn't his. However, at least one person realizes the timeline doesn't quite add up and draws the correct conclusion, creating problems later.
    • In a rare consensual example, Alejandro II is revealed to be Gifted and thus unable to father children. Since one of the main duties of a Grand Duke is producing a heir, it is agreed that his wife will secretly conceive a child with a suitable candidate of her choice and that no one will ever speak of this again.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Mechella and Arrigo's failing marriage bears a striking resemblance to that of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Ends better for her, though.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Sario claims that he and Eleyna are alike. She ultimately agrees, although she vows never to give in to her darker impulses as he has.
  • Phantom-Zone Picture: Sario traps Saavedra in a picture when he discovers she's pregnant with the Duke's child. In the end, she does the same to him.
  • Princess Classic: Mechella starts as one. She grows out of it.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Rohario. He grows out of it.
  • Shout-Out
    • Beatriz, a nun who researches peas and the hereditary basis of the Grijalva's Gift, is a shout-out to Gregor Mendel.
    • In the epilogue, there are fleeting mentions of some counterparts of real-life historical figures, straying into Alternate History territory (in this world, Branwell Brontë apparently survived long enough to publish at least one novel).
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Rohario is a sheltered, slightly effeminate Dandy while his older brother Edoard is more of a Lovable Jock type, interested chiefly in hunting and girls. Their father views them both as shallow and useless.
  • Sinister Minister: Caterin Serrano.
  • Slumming It: Rohario decides on a whim to run away with Eleyna, live with common people and do whatever common people do. The shock of discovering how his prospective subjects live eventually sends him into political activism.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Alejandro and Saavedra. Also Mechella and Cabral, although they do manage to maintain a secret relationship at some level.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Sario has spent centuries mulling over the justifications for his actions, gradually centering around Saavedra and how they'll be together when it's finally the right time to set her free. When she is freed at last and he gets to hear how she really feels about him, he breaks down completely.
  • Villain Protagonist: Sario again.
  • The Wise Prince: Alejandro becomes one.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: Every day that passes inside Saavedra's portrait roughly amounts to a hundred years outside. Comes into play when she is released to discover that (almost) everyone she has ever known has been dead for centuries.