Living in a world very much like our own, a seemingly ordinary person is wrapped up in a whirlwind journey that takes her across the multiverse, far from the world of her home. On the way, the protagonist discovers there are an infinity of worlds at which there is one true realm at the center, and discovers they once lived in that center realm, and are of the Blood Royal, perhaps even destined to rule. After many harrowing adventures, the protagonist reaches that one true world, and the real adventure starts. Cabals and factions struggle for the throne, some of them using dark and ancient powers. To control the one true realm is to control everything.
A familiar premise if you know the Amber Chronicles of Roger Zelazny. But I am describing a far more recent book, Chrysanthe, by Yves Meynard.
Chrysanthe is the story of Christine, who has vague memories of another life, as re-conveyed by a imaginary friend who tells her she is a Princess. But ever since she was a little girl, she has been living in a world very similar to our own Earth. Some of the details are different, planets are named for the Greek, not the Roman form of deities, for example, but the world is meant to evoke ours.
Christine is kept pent up by not only ignorance of her true state, but by a malevolent figure who she learns is only posing as her uncle and guardian, fixing her as his ward. She is liberated from these circumstances, and makes a journey with her liberator, Quentin, to the one true world of Chrysanthe, where her role and status as a Royal Princess of the realm is quickly tested. Those who had kidnapped her and secreted her away have plans of their own, plans whose timetable has been altered and accelerated by Christine’s rescue and re-emergence.
The multiverse in fantasy fiction has been a trope thanks to the efforts of Eternal Champion Michael Moorcock, and the idea that this multiverse has a “center” is the particular invention of Roger Zelazny in his Amber chronicles. Elizabeth Willey wrote a trio of novels in the early 1990’s using this idea as well. But in general, this particular conceit has not been used as much in fantasy fiction, since it is so very difficult to do well.
Chrysanthe, then, is on relatively untilled ground in terms of its setting. There are some definite evocations of these previous works, in the nature of made worlds, traveling through them, the relative lack of technology in Chrysanthe. Unlike Amber and more like the worlds of Michael Moorcock, Chrysanthe appears to be “growing” slowly against the Chaos that surrounds it.
There are some unique ideas, too. Although not explicitly Christian, the religion and cosmology is a strong and strict monotheism that works in that vein. Christine’s father, and indeed, even the worst of rulers are Divine Right Kings in a very literal sense, with the retribution of God for any who would lay hands on a King, even a bad King. There are some interesting ideas on the nature of heroes, including ones that rise up fully formed, in times of need. Dare I suggest there are intimations of Gene Wolfe and E.R. Eddison in the world that the author has created?
The language is breathtakingly beautiful. Whether describing their trip through the made worlds, or the fantastical Castle at the heart of the realm, from the complex blue flower of the Castle, to the intimate and beautifully evoked thoughts of the inhabitants of Chrysanthe, the author’s words transport you.
Character, though, is where the novel does not completely succeed. I am sorry to say this falls squarely on the main character, Christine. In addition to the imaginary character, the major facet of Christine’s early life in the made world is her sessions with an unethical psychologist who convinces Christine she was abused at a young age by her father, and that is why she lives with her “uncle”. The emotional scars of this treatment follow Christine through the book, and in a sense, Chrysanthe is the story of Christine rising to deal with and overcome these issues.
The themes of trauma, false memories and abuse are powerfully dangerous ones for any writer, and in invoking them so strongly and fully in the character, I felt that Christine was far more de-protagonized that any main character has a right to be. In some ways and some sections, she feels like a plot device for the author to describe and evoke his fantastic world. The novel flowed and worked better for me when she was offstage, which she is quite a bit in the second half of the novel. The other characters, the ones from Chrysanthe, are an interesting set on both sides of the conflict. Even given the theme of Divine Right and Divine Right Kings, there is enough ambiguity in the details to allow readers to understand why there is a conflict to be had.
However, they are still a bit removed thanks to that beautiful writing making them seem more like Medieval Heroic fiction archetypes rather than flesh and blood characters we really engage with. They scheme, quarrel, act and fight with over-sized passions. But we only earn in expository lumps just why they act the way they do, and these lumps often come at odd intervals in terms of their personal narrative and arc.
Sometimes I think the text was a little too digressive. It reads like a Pratchett novel where those wonderful footnotes he uses are integrated directly into the body of the text, which sometimes hurts the plotting of the novel and the narrative momentum. Had the author relegated some of his digressions to such a form, the novel in the main would flow much better and still retain the depth and complexity he strives for.
So I have a complicated reaction to Chrysanthe. Gorgeous writing, with pitch perfect prose. An interesting setting, borrowing an idea from Zelazny that has not been reexamined much, and looking at a lot of the ramifications of having a central archetypal realm with connections to the Divine. But the problem of the characters, most especially Christine, does make the narrative difficult to get through and really enjoy as much as I or other readers might wish.