To arrive at the end of Caitlin Sweet's The Pattern Scars has the feel of awakening from a dream -- one of doing terrible things. It is a novel of intense contradiction: a lush, delicately imagined nightmare; a horror novel about intimacy.
Paradox is the heart of The Pattern Scars. Serene, lyrical language dances the reader into a theater of blood and staring corpses. The spirited heroine is a puppet for dark forces. A Taliesin-like figure, revered in court, is a sadistic killer. Profound intimacy is cemented through psychic torture and debasement. And in the most concrete, most visual manifestation of paradox, beauty is transformed into a boiled corpse, bones laid out on red velvet.
In the fevered, haunting world conjured here, "nothing gold can stay" is not simply a theme -- it is an injunction, a command that applies directly to almost anything that might be thought good, noble or beautiful. Instead there is the blood, the blood, and the blood -- recounted with exquisite imagery.
For this book is beautiful even as it sickens -- the paradox again. Caitlin Sweet's shimmering prose, already apparent in her debut novel A Telling of Stars, reaches new heights in The Pattern Scars, which is so replete with luminous images and an evocative atmosphere that even now, a week later, these sensations still haunt my memory as if they had been real, a country I visited and would return to again.
The internal life of Nola, a heroine who is independent, likeable and tortured beyond endurance, is rendered in subtle shades of acute psychological insight. In another novel, she would be a delight to watch triumph over any opposition that came her way, through her wit and courage. But in this one, the darkness marshaled against her from the age of fourteen is far too crushing. Teldaru, a psychopath with great power and the appearance of a hero, chains Nola into a forced apprenticeship -- and a relationship that is so deeply intimate and detailed that it becomes the core of the novel.
The plot weaving around this relationship --Teldaru's grisly, frankly far-fetched schemes for the throne, the exploration of forbidden magic -- is almost a tangent, or a vehicle by which to explore a tangled, horrid, erotic bond. Through Nola's eyes, we see how a monster like Teldaru can be compelling -- one moment beating her, the next calling her by endearingly witty nicknames that in any other novel would connote a pure and honest love. Anyone who has experienced the wiles of a psychopath -- or some equivalent, manipulative relationship -- may feel a shiver of recognition in Nola's unwilling attraction to Teldaru despite his most unspeakable acts.
This book often seems like a deliberate inversion of the traditional fantasy novel: trapped in Nola's enslaved mind, the reader is on the side of evil, while the characters who would usually be central to the story -- the heroes -- are peripheral. In most fantasy novels, Nola would be a minor character, the pawn going mad on the sidelines, her character arc finding resolution offstage, much as Goneril in King Lear meets an invisible end. Here the spotlight is trained on the sidelines, on Nola's compelled descent into evil, while the heroism of those who work against Teldaru is what occurs offstage. At times, the sense of inversion is so intense as to induce a kind of literary vertigo, an acute feeling of, Where are we?
Another question arises as well: Why is this novel? We are spun around and around in the labyrinth of Teldaru's mad, sickening fantasies -- but what is the purpose? The ending doesn't offer a resolution to create a sense of purpose in retrospect. Nola's story just ends, on the same grim note that it has sustained throughout. If the purpose of the novel is to convey that evil corrodes everything it touches, even in defeat, then it certainly does succeed. But the only lynchpin I can find, at the heart of it, is intimacy, or a tortured incarnation of intimacy. Ultimately that is the central theme that binds the whole.
It should have been a relief to awaken from The Pattern Scars, after all its horrors. Yet the richness of the world, the complexity of the main character, and the intensity of her tragedy evoke memories that linger for a long time. It is the rare reader who could read this book and be unaffected -- or unscathed.