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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher review


Official Author Website

Order Black Stone Heart over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Smoke and Stone

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Michael R. Fletcher is a science fiction and fantasy author, a grilled cheese aficionado, and a whiskey-swilling reprobate. He spends his days choreographing his forklift musical (titled "Get Forked"), and using caffeine as a substitute for sanity. Any suggestions that he is actually Dyrk Ashton in disguise are all lies.

FORMAT/INFO: Black Stone Heart is 487 pages long divided over 41 numbered chapters and is the first entry in The Obsidian Path series. The author self-published it in April 2020. Cover art by Felix Ortiz. You can pick it in paperback, ebook and audiobook (narrated by the author himself!) formats.

ADAM

I was originally introduced to Khraen in Fletcher's short story collection, released last year (among his twelve thousand other releases as of late). Khraen had several stories scattered throughout the book, each picking up at a different point in Khraen's second life. Fletcher prefaced these stories with an explanation that it is all based on a role-playing game that he and his friends played back in the day. (Likely the 1990's, when everyone was whack-o for THAC0.) So when I picked up Black Stone Heart, I thought I had a leg up on what I was in for.

Boy, was I wrong.

Fletch has introduced a dark, massive, and intriguing world that spans millennia. It toys with necromancy, human sacrifice, world-domination, and soul-cannibalism.

But at the at the stone-cold, black heart of it all, lies the question, what is evil? How is it defined? How can its relativity be judged from one man to another? And most interesting is watching the justification of Khraen's sliding scale of morality, as his "I'll never sink that low" to "well, I have to do that for the greater good" becomes a steeper and steeper decline. The horrifying and tricky part that Fletch pulls off is how he got me to nod my head in agreement with Khraen's actions along the way.

Maybe I shouldn't have admitted that out loud. But this is what Fletcher has excelled at throughout his writing career. He has a way of making the reader dig down into a part of us that we don't want to face, but we know exists, and brings feelings that we fear most into focus. How evil would we sink if backed into a corner? How far would be go to survive? To protect the ones we love?

But it's not all doom and gloom. It's a pretty kickass adventure, too. There's heists, and romance (of the Fletcher variety), and knife fights, and wizard magic, and artifacts, and demons, and all sorts of fun stuff.

So, read the book! It's good! And sets up some pretty badass things to come.

ŁUKASZ


When Khraen wakes up, he has almost no memories of his past. It included violence, murder, and hacking his own chest open but other than that? Hard to say. 

He doesn’t act like a human being; rather as a savage creature focused on survival, living off bugs and roots. Only after finding an obsidian shard that pierces his skin and finds its way to his heart, he regains parts of his identity.

His integration into the local society gets tricky, especially that he has no marketable skills beyond killing children and women. His actions stem from the urge to follow the remaining shards of his heart scattered around the world. After getting each shard Khraen undergoes a painful process of integration during which he regains some memories of the past. And with them comes a growing sense of unease - it’s possible people hate him for a reason other than the color of his skin. It’s possible his past actions had disastrous consequences.

With its breakneck pace, excellent banter, wild twists and reveals, Black Stone Hearts bullies you into liking it. There’s no time not to. Things happen and they are exciting. Yes, I know that I write vaguely about this book but I do it out of a desire not to spoil it. The plot is fairly simple (protagonist and narrator regains parts of his heart, gets drunk and laid, regains his memories, travels to impossible places, meets old friends and foes, discovers his violent past) and most of the fun comes from experiencing events with Khraen and seeing how they change him. Fletcher has a knack for characterization and, surprisingly, for crafting entertaining and dark comedy. It’s a dark book and yet it made me laugh multiple times. 

He brilliantly captures the change of Khraen’s voice as he ponders on his identity and the essence of identity in general. Each new Shard allows Khraen to reassemble himself and regain his memories. If you’ve already read Fletcher, you know better than to expect happy endings and uplifting mood. Here, though, the darker side of the story hides behind the darkly humorous voice.

Make no mistake, Khraen and his companions aren’t good guys (although one question Fletcher asks is about the nature of evil - is a predator evil when it feeds itself to survive?). One of them, a necromancer, harvests people to repair herself. She treats people as a source of parts.

Black Stone Heart is, above all, addictive and compulsively readable - it forced me to prolong my lunch as much as I dared because I couldn’t bear to stop reading it. If anything depended on me, I would forbid Fletcher to work on anything but The Obsidian Path series. I need the sequel.

It’s clear I’m biased. For the sake of objectivity, I have to say it probably won’t appeal to readers tired of over-the-topness, violence, and a certain level of predictability (those two final surprises weren’t really exactly shocking). I loved it too much to care, though, and felt fully immersed in the narrative.

MIHIR

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher is a worthy finalist and a book that commands your attention from the first page itself. Opening with Khraen, an unknown person who doesn’t know who or what he is. He also doesn’t know the where and how of it either. The only thing he understands is hunger and the elements which might kill him if he doesn’t learn how to survive.

Thus begins the journey of The Obsidian Path, one wherein the readers and Khraen will both learn about the secrets of the world and himself. This is the book’s biggest mystery and its biggest draw as well. Right off the bat, the best thing about the book is Fletcher’s writing, beginning from Khraen himself. The author vividly portrays him as an animal to begin out with who is learning how to be alive as well find out who he is. 

Pretty soon along the journey we find out why the title of the book and the series title is so peculiar. Turns out that Khraen’s anatomy is weirder than most, his heart is supposedly made out of obsidian pieces and he can sense whenever there’s a piece around. However he has to kill the person whose body houses it. This is just the start of the killings as we readers find out to what depths Khraen will plumb to regain his identity and lost knowledge.

This book is one of the darkest books I’ve read and it’s written with such sheer aplomb that I couldn’t stop reading it. Khraen commits foul murders, fraternizes with zombie necromancers, hobnobs with mage thieves and yet remains one of the most intriguing protagonists which you’ll ever read about in the field of speculative fiction. Fletcher’s writing is certainly the highlight as he tosses the reader in to a strange world where nothing is as it seems. We get only bits and pieces of information about a world that seems to be eons old. Every time Khraen regains a piece, he gets a bit more details about his past and we the readers’ get a darker glimpse into a world that’s as epic as it gets. There’s also the question of morality, especially when your main characters murders and maims with impunity. He acts in concert with a person who scavenges body parts and basically kills people whom they fancy as beautiful.

In almost all stories, these characters would be villains that would make our stomachs queasy. In this book though, Fletcher has a way of humanizing them while not flinching away from their depravity. He gives us enough of their mindset and then let’s the readers decide what to make of it all. I appreciated this move and of course different folks will have different interpretations of it. 

From multiple dimensions to demons inhabiting objects to magic that can transcend life, all of this and more is hinted at within this story however we only get bits and pieces of it. This is a solid drawback to this story. For readers of epic fantasy who are expecting action and magic in heavy doses, will find neither. There’s magic done in small personal doses and the action is pretty much localized to a few scenes where its’ heavily focused on an individual level. Lastly the ending of the book is a bit of a cliffhanger and feels as if the story just ended, rather than coming to a smoother finale. 

Overall this book still is one of the best written stories that have been published in the field of dark fantasy. I honestly believe the sequels will be the ones where the story, world and characters get to further explode off the pages. One such side character is Henka who is sympathetic and reprehensible and it’s to the author’s credit that he presents such a multifaceted character. I can’t wait to read more about her in the sequels as well. 

OFFICIAL SPFBO RATING



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