Caitlin Sweet , The Pattern Scars, ISBN: 9781926851433, ChiZine Publications, September 2011.
Reviewed by Leah Bobet.
There is a legend told in Sarsenay of Teldaru, a five-year-old tavern keeper’s son, who foresaw a lord’s death in his own spilled wine and was taken to the castle to become Otherseer to the king. Twenty years later, young Nola’s gift for Otherseeing asserts itself, equally strong and violent, but instead of being taken to the castle, her poverty-stricken mother sells her to a brothel for a handful of coins. And thus is the pattern of The Pattern Scars established: expectations of shimmering high fantasy renown transformed to abuse, vanity, and despair.
Sweet shows the most standard tropes of second-world fantasy through a dark mirror: the brothel where Nola apprentices as an Otherseer becomes a safe and treasured home; her elderly teacher and Bardrem, the cook’s boy, become her family. Kings are foolish, sage heroes are the greatest traitors, teenaged rivals must be protected, and all prophecies turn false — and the man who eventually plucks her from brothel to castle, tall and attractive and able to realize Nola’s Otherseeing talent in a way that could grant her fame and fortune, is not the start of a grand adventure or a great romance, but the gateway to a terrifying, twisted hell of abuse and destruction.
Sweet writes beautifully cadenced, hypnotic prose –- prose that has soul and heft and weight –- and paints a world rich in both emotional impression and exacting detail, but the despair of Nola’s road makes The Pattern Scars a sometimes difficult book. Unlike a lot of our social myths about sustained emotional abuse, The Pattern Scars is grimly realistic about the consequences of an affection-starved thirteen-year-old girl trying to square off against the handsome, heroic, powerful Otherseer who once represented her entire hope: one better-trained, more than twice her age, who’s also a serial killer and traitor sunk elbow-deep in death magic. Nola spends most of the novel frightened and outmatched and torn between attraction and revulsion, and then numb and outmatched, with the revulsion turned to resignation; an unwilling collaborator in nation-destroying plots until the lines slowly blur, and she grows less and less unwilling. Her mouth cursed to lie about both her knowledge and her prophecies, her feet cursed to return to her captor if she tries to run away, the bulk of the narrative sees Nola stripped of agency and caught in inaction, fighting the same battles against her curse and her mentor and getting just about as far for the same implacable reasons.
There’s no faulting the realism of this: Nola’s emotional struggles are pretty much a manual for everyone who’s ever asked why didn’t she just leave?, and the concluding pages are full of the kind of terrible true things you will not often see in fiction. But -– and it’s the trap so many realistic and human novels about abuse and despair and depression fall into –- this realism damages the pacing and plotting in ways that can’t be discounted. For whole years of Nola’s life the plot against the crown proceeds, but her desire for her own emancipation sits there like a held breath, and that’s the plotline that’s visceral; that’s the one that made me, as a reader, yearn and bleed.
As a reader or an editor, I’ve yet to find the book that manages to balance both the lived experience of abuse or depression against the readerly desire for problems that are solved dynamically by characters tapping into the best of themselves. And it’s frankly terrible that this is true: part of why we read books is to see ourselves there, or to know, sometimes, that we’re not alone, and those experiences are true, dammit. It’s almost unfair to hold a flaw such as this against a book when it’s so widespread and so wickedly difficult to solve. But The Pattern Scars does not succeed at solving this problem of action and inaction, pacing and truth, where everyone else has also failed.
That said, it is grim and bloody and soft and speckled with beauty. It shows us the high fantasy hero story through pained, prematurely old eyes, and twists good intentions, noble action, love and hate and talent and choice with a calm and simple authority that is absolute. Sweet is a deft and deeply underrated storyteller; in tackling one of the hardest subjects around, she has produced a novel that speaks with enough gravity and grace to leave me with only one substantive complaint. I truly, sincerely regret that it’s a novel I can admire, but not love.