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Lord of Stone by Keith Brooke
(an infinity plus production, careware, published online, December 1998.)

How many beginnings does a novel have?

How long is a piece of string?

But the answer is always more than one, of course; a novel starts in more than one place. There's the actual beginning of the book, word one, which need not be the beginning of the plot. To begin at the beginning, it often seems, is to beg at the beginning: to plead and counsel for the reader's attention; for forgiveness for crimes that might not even be committed. To hook the reader's lips together (don't say a word!) and leave him dangling, staring - wondering what is to happen next, not even certain if he wishes to be returned to his natural environment. Most novels that begin with word-one equalling printgrip-one have ghost-plots, where the past might be in absentia , but it's a force of nature, or a promise, ready to return and affect. This approach needs either the car crash of instant plot development - effectively something for nothing, a sudden bonus - or the promise of one; the glimpse of the faulty brakes, the slush-slick road, the storm. More perilous still is the plot that comes from nowhere and has no past-plot to cling to. The plot that begins on line one and ends on the last page, the length of which has had no recourse to the past (or the future), is written by the author with the nerve of a diamond-cutter and the prose of an angel.

But the beginning of Keith Brooke's fourth novel, Lord of Stone, plays it safe; and there's nothing wrong with that. We are well into the story, a year ahead, and we'll be looking back; we're at a tentative stage, which is therefore good for drama and for the tease. This scene is the hook, and it is already rusty with the events that will lead up to the moment. Or, if you like, the car, at the beginning of the story, is already a stunning wreck... We're with Bligh and Madeleine, survivors of an uncertain fall, with the plot potentia , the mention of the Lord of Stone (who might or might not be Bligh) up in the air. The millennium that will end with the year 2999 has long since passed, and the future is a held breath. Now we must follow the protagonists on a quest of sorts, which will lead to that fermenting, conspicuous teaser - and all plot catch-ups like this are quests - and we watch Bligh, the heartstrong freedom fighter (or wannabe) in a land called Trace, which is not his own and which is being decimated by conflict. And we watch his longsuffering partner, who has the patience of a saint.

Brevity and clean lines have always been selling points for this author, and it is with remarkable speed that Bligh signs up for the Landworkers Alliance - a ragtag military unit - thereby making guns that jam and dug-outs that stink a daily norm. This is war. This is real. Rather than the military life of brass buttons and crisp salutes, we see the makeshift barracks, the bayonets, the brains splashed hither and yon; we get the explosive dysentery, the loneliness, the coughing fits caused by an incessant exposure to damp. Shells. Pain. Stylistically, brevity makes Lord of Stone pacy, and the glossing-over of character-building emotion (initially grating) starts to work as soon as the reader learns to dread the absence, the nullity of military existence as surely as the characters (and perhaps the author) do; and to dread the violence that is the only conceivable release valve. Later on, when the soldiers scare a journalist who is with them, the joke is in appalling taste; but the fact that it was played - that someone else was on the receiving end for once - speaks volumes. It's an excellent scene.

Where is Madeleine while Bligh is fighting? Following Bligh, scared for him, infatuated by him; working in pubs, staying out of danger, and fearing rape... As the plot drives on, the subplots hoot their horns and occasionally overtake. The war, if not solely the result of religious intolerance (in both directions) has certainly been exacerbated by the same. Bligh (so close to "blind", so close to "high" or "sigh") does not believe in the Lords Elemental (one for stone, more for others) and begins, at one point to feel that he's been shanghaied by a cause that no longer concerns him. Amendments to Bligh's psychology are afoot. War, traditionally and certainly in fiction (not least as a metaphor) has long been acknowledged as a force for change, and Bligh's hallucinations sip away at his given mental resources. We're losing him. He's losing himself. The sex scenes become both gloomier and more exciting; and with every colleague that is peppered with shrapnel or atomized by a blast, it seems that Bligh twists and wriggles that inch or two away from the novel's reality, to harrowing effect.

Incidentally, the novel's reality is a form of our own, historically speaking; for the battle scenes, if we wish, we can play stock footage of World Wars I and II. So here might be a good place to look at the next of the novel's beginnings... Be it said, this is a work of fantasy, and will sit with fantasy on the shining junkyard of Genre; but with a modicum of surgery, and nothing more drastic, it could easily have been a novel about a war, civil or otherwise. (The author has brought war home with him.) So again, sensing the fascination we have for dead conflicts, Brooke has also played it safe; and there's nothing wrong with that either. At any rate, the rock-bottom baseness of an existence which is only made possible by devastation, and the danger of the same, is well described; and the more spiritual matters, when the pile-up looms, are fascinating.

The third and final beginning that concerns us here, with Lord of Stone, is not always relevant - because one reviews the book and not the author - but this is not a book in the traditional interpretation of sheets of paper collected inside thicker covers. These are airwords, heavenwords (the collision has claimed its victims, but the show must go on), available only on the Internet. So a mention of the author serves as more than the reminder of Brooke's three earlier novels, the last of which was published near the birth of the decade, or the intervening years in which Brooke wrote stories, lorded over a website, and supported a family. Brooke is on the record as saying (so he will not, presumably, mind if it is repeated) that Lord of Stone is Web-trained because it was unsuccessful in finding a conventional publisher. But two of the problems with this sort of publishing are that errors go uncorrected (but a continued use of "lets" for "let's" can be pardoned, surely, along with the grit of other typos); and that staring at a screen is a lousy reading experience. Print it out and don't be afraid of it. The title might ring an alarm bell or two, especially if various boomtimes in fantasy publishing have lead to a general suspicion of books with "Lord" in the title, but be assured: as a marked development on from his earlier work, Lord of Stone is thoughtful, cool, and the preliminary functionality of familiar guises soon gives on to more challenging notions.

Review by David Mathew.

Lord of Stone is published as careware: if you enjoy the novel just give some money to one of the nominated charities.

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© David Mathew 25 September 1999