Ostensibly as part of the Hanged Man Promo, but really because I might have a slightly obsessive personality type, here is my mini-thesis on Rune’s cameo necklace in The Last Sun, and why I think it’s a major clue to one of the mysteries of KD Edwards’ worldbuilding. Enjoy.
In the world of New Atlantis, sigils are magical items, usually in the form of jewelry, which can hold spells – allowing their bonded users to release the spell at a later time. They’re the foundation of Atlantean magic; in practical terms, it’s virtually impossible for the average person to cast noteworthy spells without sigils – at least without a lifetime of hardcore training.
This obviously makes sigils incredibly important and valuable – but what makes them priceless is that Atlanteans no longer have the ability to make new ones. Somehow, at some point, the art of sigil creation was lost. How, why and when has not yet been specified in the books.
I have a theory though.
Rune, the main character and narrator of the Tarot Sequence, possesses a cameo necklace sigil that used to belong to his mother. As one of only six sigils that survived the fall of the Sun Court, it’s beyond priceless to the last scion of the Sun Throne and his small found-family; as the only thing he has of his mother’s, it has incalculable sentimental value too.
But because I have a brain full of all sorts of random trivia, listening to the Last Sun audiobook (which I highly recommend, by the way, even if you’re like me and not used to audiobooks) and actually hearing about the cameo instead of reading past it, reminded me of something. So I went digging.
Cameo actually refers to a specific method of carving; it means the picture – usually a person (silhouette, full figure, or just a face), but sometimes a scene from myth – has been carved out of whatever material is being used to form a raised relief. That relief is almost always of a single color that contrasts to the color around it, and in cameo jewelry, the entire piece is then set in a gold or silver frame. Cameo as an art form has been around for ages; the Egyptians had stone cameos, and the Romans had ones made of glass, which weren’t always jewelry but sometimes made into amphorae, a kind of vase.
I feel I should also mention that one theory is that the word cameo comes from kameo or kame’o, a term from kabbalistic magic that referred to a talisman magical symbols were carved into. Which just makes it extra appropriate to have your sigil be in the form of a cameo, if you ask me.
Cameo jewelry, aka cameos, got a resurgence in the 15th century, and then again around the 1800s – Napoleon’s crown was apparently covered in cameos and Queen Victoria set the trend for cameos in Britain. This is pretty much when what we know as cameo brooches and necklaces today got really popular, and when most of the heirloom ones were made. They’re usually made out of shell or some kind of gemstone – modern ones tend to be agate – but they’ve also been made from coral and lava.
I’ve been unable to get a clear answer on what material ‘lava’ is supposed to refer to – the pictures I’ve seen are all like the one above, kind of brown, but there’s references to the material being gathered from Mt Vesuvius? ‘Lava stone’ is a catch-all term for a whole bunch of minerals that turn up when molten lava cools, from obsidian to volcanic rock. But what’s important here is that, as you might remember from Last Sun, coral, vulcanized coal, and volcanic glass – aka, obsidian – are all used in weaponry specifically designed to take out magical creatures. So we know that coral and obsidian are two substances that have special importance for Atlanteans.
We don’t know what Rune’s cameo is a picture of; and we only know that it’s been described as ‘an ivory cameo’. Ivory cameos became an extremely big thing in the 19th century, especially those made by Roman artists; but from what I can tell, ‘ivory cameo’ is also a term used to describe any cameo jewelry featuring an ivory-colored human figure on a dark background. So Rune’s necklace may not actually be made of ivory; calling it ‘an ivory cameo’ might just be giving us an idea of what it looks like, without telling us anything else about it.
So since ‘ivory cameo’ is no guarantee Rune’s necklace is made from actual animal ivory, we go back to my suspicion that it’s no coincidence that historical cameos were made of coral and obsidian, and those two substances just happen to be majorly important to Atlanteans.
From my rabbit-hole spiral into Google, it looks like cameo necklaces didn’t exist prior to the 1800s. Before that, they were rings, brooches, and even earrings and bracelets, but not necklaces. The problem is that a brooch could have been turned into a necklace at some point, so that’s not a surefire way of narrowing down the age of Rune’s cameo. That said, assuming I’m right that Rune’s cameo is ‘ivory’ in style but actually made out of coral and/or ‘lava’ – lava cameos are almost always Victorian in origin, according to one expert. For those of you lucky enough not to be raised in the British education system, the Victorian era covers 1837-1901, aka the reign of Queen Victoria. And even if the cameo is made of ivory – most of those were made in this period too.
Which would suggest that Rune’s mother’s cameo was created after the 1830s and possibly as recently as 1900, just a century and change ago. So I’m willing to tentatively theorise that Atlanteans were still making sigils at least until the 1900s.
Now, sigils are so vital to Atlantean society that I can’t believe anything short of a truly enormous event could wipe out all knowledge of how to make them. And what’s the most likely contender for an enormously destructive event that hit Atlantis after the 1900s?
The Atlantean World War.
There’s a few different ways it could have gone down, and they all depend on a) my being right that the art was lost in the war and not before it, and b) on how knowledge of the art was kept. A small group of superior craftspeople, carefully keeping the secret exclusive to their own guild and apprentices, would be much easier to eliminate than something more widespread. And the upper echelons of Atlantean society do seem pretty big on exclusivity – it’s not really hard to imagine that only an elite few might have known and kept the knowledge to themselves; it would be a sure way to ensure their power and influence, and possibly also keep sigils themselves as rare, precious objects – their value would have decreased if they’d been common enough that everyone could have one.
For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m right. The human side of the Atlantean World War might have deliberately aimed to take-out the sigil-makers, once they realised who they were – short of the Arcanum themselves I can’t think of more tactically valuable targets. And while it’s likely that the Atlanteans would have tried hard to protect their sigil-makers – both the Emperor’s and Empress’ Courts fell in the war or its aftermath (assuming they had separate courts; the Emperor and Empress are two separate tarot cards, so I’m guessing that though they were two halves of a whole, they also each had their own power base). If the fight was bloody enough to kill the Emperor, with all the defenses he must have had, it suddenly becomes a lot more believable that even some of Atlantis’ most valuable citizens would have been in danger too. Especially given that the demand for sigils during the war must have been at an all-time high, potentially putting their creators way too close to the front lines.
So yes. Tl;dr: I think Rune’s cameo necklace is evidence that Atlantis lost the art of sigil-making in the Atlantean World War. And that’s important not just because it’s a cool bit of worldbuilding, but because a secret lost that recently has a much higher chance of being rediscovered than one lost millennia ago.
And just imagine what that rediscovery might do for Rune, Brand, and New Atlantis?