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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher (reviewed by Lukasz Przywóski)

Official Author Website
Order Smoke and Stone over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

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.

OFFICIAL BLURB: After a cataclysmic war of the gods, the last of humanity huddles in Bastion, a colossal ringed city. Beyond the outermost wall lies endless desert haunted by the souls of all the world’s dead.

Trapped in a rigid caste system, Nuru, a young street sorcerer, lives in the outer ring. She dreams of escape and freedom. When something contacts her from beyond the wall, she risks everything and leaps at the opportunity. Mother Death, a banished god seeking to reclaim her place in Bastion’s patchwork pantheon, has found her way back into the city.

Akachi, born to the wealth and splendor of Bastion’s inner rings, is a priest of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt. A temple-trained sorcerer, he is tasked with bringing peace to the troublesome outer ring. Drawn into a dark and violent world of assassins, gangs, and street sorcerers, he battles the spreading influence of Mother Death in a desperate attempt to save Bastion.

The gods are once again at war.

FORMAT/INFO: Smoke and Stone is 511 pages long divided over 40 numbered chapters and is the first entry in the City of Sacrifice series. The author self-published it in September 2019. The cover art is by Felix Ortiz.

OVERVIEW: In ancient times, healers and shamans used hallucinogenic substances to break their mental shackles and achieve transcendence. In Fletcher’s world, sorcerers devour obscene quantities of hallucinogenic mushrooms to do magic. It helps them to produce psychedelic sensations of time-space displacement or transformation into beasts. Their narcotic-shaped realities intrude upon the real world and give them preternatural skills.

The world as we know it no longer exists. After a cataclysmic war of the gods, the last humanity huddles in Bastion, a colossal ringed city whose structure reflects its social stratification. Unprivileged inhabit the outer rings rife with violence, poverty, and crime. Wealthy and powerful live in the inner rings enjoying the relative luxury and power. Beyond the city walls lies an endless desert.

Beyond the Sand Wall, endless desert. A dead world. She couldn’t comprehend the scale. Bastion was huge, it was everything, everywhere. As a child she dreamed of walking beyond the walls, of the freedom. You’ll get your chance. It was, however, unlikely she’d survive the fall. She’d heard sermons about the few who did. Inevitably they lay wounded and screaming in the red sand. Few lasted more than a day. Heat and 

The story follows two sorcerers whose paths intertwine. Nuru, a young street sorcerer, dreams of escape from the outer ring and freedom. It seems her talents caught the attention of Mother Death who seeks to reclaim her place in the Bastion’s Pantheon. Akachi is a priest of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt, tasked with bringing peace to the troublesome outer ring in which Nuru lives. They serve different gods and each of them is just a pawn in game humans can’t understand. Fletcher stays true to himself and does to his characters what you expect from him - he puts them through hell and ruins them.

Fletcher doesn’t write for the squeamish, and he relishes ruining his characters as they step into madness or self-destruction. And yet, like his other books, Smoke and Stone is an addictive read thanks to a unique setting and a plot full of twisted reveals. 

Beyond the awesomeness of the premise (ringed and socially stratified city, human sorcerers as proxies to warring gods, crystal and drug-induced magic) and the moral complexities of characters’ choices, Smoke and Stone truly shines in terms of its ensemble cast. Both POV characters remain convincing and tragic, with no good choices ahead of them. After having a vision of a mythical creature (a hybrid between spider and women) Nuru is obsessed with carving its statue. Sorcerers are able to shape-shift into creatures they carve. She just needs to get some paint and tools to finish the work.

Because of the events I can't mention (spoilers), Akashi is afraid to lose control of his life. He trashes himself on drugs, mixing them to gain preternatural skills and fight with his insecurities:

Only after the words were out did he realize how that might sound. His thoughts swam in narcotics. Foku fought to pull his attention to the perfect gutters lining the streets. Bihurtu stretched the veil of worlds so thin he saw his spirit animals circling impatiently, ready to come to his aid. Jainkoei peeled his soul, exposed him to the gods. He felt them all around him. Their will drove him, made him dance like a marionette. He was a twig caught in the raging torrent of divine need. He couldn’t think what to say to Yejide to make it right. There wasn’t enough of him left. 

Secondary characters stand out as well, especially a mysterious girl known as Efra who bounces between cold self-interest and a desperate yearning to belong. She doesn’t believe in half-measures and behaves like a blood-thirsty lunatic but she's also smart. I won’t lie. She scares me.

I’ve mentioned the world-building. I love the concept of the city, but the magic system based on hallucinogenics and crystals impressed me even more. I mean, there are twenty different drugs used by sorcerers to do magic and each of them has a different effect. Skilfull sorcerers mix them to prepare themselves for special feats. 

The only real complaints I have for this book are two-fold. First, I wished that there was a little more attention devoted to the worldbuilding and society stratification and its explanation. What we get is enough to follow the story and understand the tensions between casts but I would love to learn more. Second, the prose, while precise and providing the information we need, sometimes feels too casual for my tastes.

Other than that, I found Smoke and Stone enthralling and unpredictable. It has it all. A solid plot, a unique magic system, fascinating world, and memorable characters. Oh, and if you're fond of familiars in your fantasy, Nuru has one. A black viper named Isabis. A sweet creature, really. I have no idea why Nuru's friends feel uncomfortable when she's caressing the snake's scales :)



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