It is the Year of Our Lords (yes, plural) 3964, and the nation of Trace is wracked by civil war. It's an odd war in some ways. The technology and tactics are very 'first world war'; trenches, no-man's land, that sort of thing. But the politics is straight 'Spanish civil war'; factions, mini-coups, Internationalist Volunteers, Royalists versus Revolutionaries, Right versus Left...
Into this bitter broil wanders a young man named Bligh. Bligh doesn't really fit into the civil war scene in Trace. For one thing, he's foreign, a Wederian. For another, he's a Jahvean monotheist, unlike the polytheistic Traians who worship the six Elemental Lords... But, he's young, in love, a rebel fleeing from his rigid religious upbringing. All of which makes it easy enough to join one of the more ramshackle revolutionary factions, pick up a rifle and start learning about the ugly, confused, morally distorted reality of the war. Bligh is also, periodically, prone to delusive fits or dreams in which he imagines himself to be a mountain, or a boulder falling off said mountain, or finds himself melding into stone. Is he mad? Or is he an avatar for one of the reawakening Elemental Lords? Bligh may have his doubts, but Captain Merc Domenech of the Unification Party of the People, a proto-fascist with king-making ambitions, is pretty convinced not only of Bligh's impending godhood, but also of his own...
So Bligh spends time dodging Royalist bullets, dodging Domenech's savage power plays, dodging commitment to the girl he loves. Trying to understand himself, trying to understand his world, trying to understand, well, everything.
And there are a lot of unanswered questions, for Bligh and for the reader too. Trace is a never-never land. Ambiguously connected to our own world by a few linguistic similarities (Jahvean/Jehovah) and cultural flourishes, but never clearly 'back-grounded' with any recognisable history. If this is Earth we're looking at, in the year 3964 in a non-Christian calendar, how did it get knocked back into a 1920ish state? If it's not Earth, then why the cultural similarities? Then again, the roots of the war Bligh is fighting in are left hazy for a long time, skated over swiftly, then allowed to dwindle into Domenech's conspiracies. Bligh can't be quite certain what the real cause of the fighting is, and neither can we.
And then, Trace is a country where magic has been, or may have been, practised widely in the past. The occasional Healer drifts through the story, but with very little sense of system or tradition to back them up they feel like afterthought additions to the society they're supposed to be a part of...
Lord of Stone is an odd mixture of virtues and flaws, a book written in clear, concise prose, that is nonetheless a bit lost for direction. A story of dramatic conflict, that refuses to dramatise (there's a lot of grit, mud and blood in the trenches, but the thunder of battle is muted). A story with a love affair, told by a young man who won't, or can't, clearly and vividly convey his feelings. One appreciates the reality of what is on the page but one hungers for a bit more drive! A bit more passion! Action!
Ultimately, Lord of Stone is interesting for its ideas, and impressive in its gritty reality, but not compelling for its narrative, and the setting is too hazy to truly satisfy. Respectable fiction, but not riveting.
Review by Simeon Shoul.
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© Simeon Shoul 13 April 2002