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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Stone Knife by Anna Stephens (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)



Order The Stone Knife over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anna Stephens is the author of the Godblind trilogy: Godblind, Darksoul, and Bloodchild, which are published through HarperVoyager in the UK and Commonwealth, and Talos Press in North America. A literature graduate from the Open University, Anna loves all things speculative, from books to film and TV, including classic Hammer and Universal horror films, as well as DnD and the chameleon genius of David Bowie.

As a practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts, with a focus on Italian longsword, and a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, she’s no stranger to the feeling of being hit in the face, which is more help than you would expect when writing fight scenes.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.

The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.

As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Stone Knife is Anna Stephens’ new foray into the world of epic fantasy and it’s as different from her previous trilogy in terms of her world, characters, and darkness. I had enjoyed her Godblind trilogy but with this new trilogy focusing on Pseudo-Central/South American culture, I was very, very excited to read it.

This new book starts out with a people in disarray and running from a rapidly expanding empire. The main story is set in the peninsular lands of Ixachipan. The Empire of Songs has conquered everything and everyone in these lands with their powerful musical magic. However things haven’t gone entirely dire as two forest tribes are still resisting the empire’s ambitions. The Tokoban and Yalotlan tribes are feeling the encroachment as well as the refugees who are slowly trickling in from the conquered lands. The book’s first third portion further expands on this setup and we are then treated to a start of a magnificent epic story.

What’s really striking about this story is by now if you think this is going to be a simplistic good tribes versus empire story then you will be sorely wrong. The story first three four chapters focus exclusively on the Tokob tribe and again as we are lulled into a singular way of life and the characters. The author brilliantly and quickly shifts the spotlight directly into the Empire camp via Etne & the Singer. Then quickly we learn that Empire of Songs aren’t necessarily all that evil as we might have imagined them to be (though they are championing slavery). We find that the invaded tribes have a strange and brutal method of honouring their gods. The empire's Gods are very much abhorrent to these forest tribes as is their way of living. So in some way, the Empire is trying to bring a change (of sorts) however it's left up to the readers to decide what's good and bad. Such complexity and more is inherently jampacked in this EPIC fantasy story opener.

Why I loved this story so much because of three things that Anna Stephens did superbly:
- Plot
- World
- Characters

The plot of the story is complex, mired in grey morality and gives us both sides to a conflict that will shake the known world in its entirety. I can’t thank Anna Stephens enough writing such a fantastic story that’s as epic as among the annals of fantasy literature but also complex enough to rival the famous stories written by Messrs.’ Martin, Abercrombie & Mses' Friedman, Bear. Since this is book one, we are given a fantastical opening into a conflict that will bedazzle and frighten all the same. Plus the way the book ends, it sets up the future books really strongly.

The worldbuilding done in this opening volume is stupendous to say the least. I commend Anna for giving us a non-European setting. This subtropical world is one of dense foliage, damp watery marshes, and weird, dangerous creatures. Beginning with the descriptions of the swampy and forest foliage, then to the attire as well the cultures that are open to differing sexualities and physical abilities. All in all, this world is new, strange and entirely enticing for a worldbuilding junkie akin to myself. In every chapter, Anna Stephens gives us some new information about the people, the flora and fauna and it all builds up as the climax approaches. Lastly I want to give another shout to her for creating such disturbing monsters which inhabit this world and using them sparingly to increase the terror in the story.

Lastly going on the characters, this story has a multi-POV structure and it lends itself beautifully to the story as we get in-depth looks from both side of the struggle. We get to see the lives of the following characters Xessa, Tayan, Etne, Lilla, Pilos, and The Singer. They are a complex lot with differing views on life, battle and conquest. There’s also a whole host of secondary characters as well as the animal kind who don’t share the same sentience but are cool nonetheless. I enjoyed how the author explored both cultures from the eyes of these characters and even though some are noble like Pilos, they have their blinders on horrid things like slavery. This and more dichotomies are very keenly explored by Anna thereby causing the readers to be further enmeshed within the characters' lives and the struggle that's ongoing.

This story builds up the conflict by layering the story with enough details and quite detailed POVs which help in providing context and give us a rich storyline where neither side is the clear cut heroes. They both have differing shades as is true in most geopolitical shindigs. The book is also quite grim and dark in many places as it doesn’t shy away from showcasing aspects of cannibalism, torture, violence towards both human & animal kind. This is not to say that all of it just to throw the readers’ sensibilities askew. It’s presented within a very realistic world and it’s never meant to titillate.

The only thing which prevented this story from being a five star read for me was the pace of the story. As I previously mentioned, this is a big book and the first third of the story has quite a buildup wherein the pace is sacrificed for the sake of excellence in characterization and worldbuilding. For me, this wasn’t such a bad thing, however for many readers, the slow start might dampen their enthusiasm for the book. This is a sad thing as the plot is really a terrific one.

CONCLUSION: The Stone Knife is a unique story that combines epic fantasy, distinct new cultures and world building on a scale that is hitherto unseen so far. Anna Stephens has given us a dark gift that heralds her as one of epic fantasy’s newest and most acclaimed writers. Don’t miss out on this opener in a new saga, it promises to get darker and more violent but you will be thrilled all the way along.

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