The Garden of Stones
by Mark T Barnes
**Note: as it turns out, I'm just not a fan of epic fantasy. If you are, you probably should just ignore this review and go try the book.
Long ago, the world was ruled by the Seethe, a tempestuous species of wind elemental who value beauty in all things, from lovemaking to war. With their vast stores of knowledge, they used Humans as vassals and created other servants with their advanced technology, blending lion with human to create the ferocious Tau-se, and human with Seethe to create the Avan. Slowly, the empire declined into lazy decadence. Seizing their moment, the Avan created their own Awakened Empire, passing down their knowledge from generation to generation of nobles (rahn) through a process known as "awakening," in which the consciousnesses of those who went before are joined to the current rahn. Now, the Avan empire, too, is shaky, threatened by the Human's Iron League, still resentful of the remaining Seethe, and disrupted by internal squabbles. Galvanized by the prophesies of a powerful witch, Corajidin of House Erebus is ready to capitalize on this turmoil if it will give him access to the ancient technological relics buried in another Great House's land. If the relics contain instruments such as a Destiny Engine or Torque Spindle, Corajidin will be unstoppable. Only Indris, powerful warrior mage and related by blood and marriage to Corajidin's targets, will have a chance at stopping him.
Even though I don't have a good track record with epic fantasy, the rave reviews, interesting premise, and gorgeous cover tempted me into picking up The Garden of Stones. As it turns out, this may have been a mistake. I think I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not cut out to be an epic fantasy reader. My personal subgenre of choice has its own fair share of tropes*, but I think I simply lack the patience for epic fantasy. I find myself tired by everything from the gratuitous fantasy-language words to the simplistic politics to the extraordinarily handsome, heroic, and powerful protagonists. While I was extremely impressed by the worldbuilding, since I had to force myself to finish, this review is going to be rather cranky. If you're a fan of epic fantasy and enjoy Rothfuss, Sanderson, Jordan, and similar, then I really think you should ignore my review and just go try the book.
Don't get me wrong--in terms of sheer creativity, I'd give the book a six. I also liked the non-European basis for the culture, and the way that the cultures lent themselves to interesting and powerful female characters. Unfortunately, I think the book rated rather lower in the areas of storytelling, cast, and plot. To start with, I had an extremely difficult time getting into the book: the story is stuffed with fantasy-language words, a plethora of cursorily-introduced characters, and a hailstorm of oblique references to old histories and races. The author saw fit to include a rather lengthy glossary with all the necessary details and background for reading the novel, but unfortunately, as the critical glossary is at the back of the book, I didn't find out about it until I reached the end. While I understand that the use of in-world words for everything from swords to kings to jewellery is supposed to make the world more immersive, the moment of confusion that these rarely redefined words induced tended to jerk me out of the narrative. To understand what I mean, consider this section, taken from the first few pages of the book. (Nope, you don't know any of those vocab words yet.)
“I’m daimahjin-Indris,” the warrier-mage said as he stepped forward, hands extended to either side in a display of peace. Damahjin. Warrior and mage. Scholar. Of the highest caste in Avan society. Indris wanted them to think twice about harming him or those with him. “I offer my surrender to Rahn-Nasarat fa Ariskander, Arbiter of the Change, as per the Teshri’s code and measure of sanctioned war.”
The world certainly contains interesting ideas. One of my favourites was probably the Jahirojin, an assassination curse which physically compels those of the blood to attack the foe. However, the Jahirojin fell into the common problem of most of the interesting aspects of the worldbuilding: the book is so packed with ideas that it is infeasible to actually really explore them within the narrative. The elements that are fleshed out are disappointingly familiar; for example, I recognized palantir, Dead Marshes, and even a Gandalf-rejects-the-Ring scene.
Sadly, I don't think the plot, or the politics it draws from, show the same level of thought and complexity as the worldbuilding.(show spoiler)
Overall, I found the villain unconvincing and the politics forced and illogical.
In terms of characters, Garden of Stones falls into what I see as a common flaw of epic fantasy: since everyone and everything is superlative, the author has to keep upping the ante to the point of absurdity. Almost everyone is extraordinarily beautiful (except for the evil characters, because we all know ugliness and wickedness are linked, right?); everyone has "sapphire" or "amethyst" eyes; over half the characters are so incredibly powerful and skilful that they have cringe-worthy nicknames like "The Widowmaker" or "The Stormbringer" or "Blood-Dancer." The problem with this setup, to my mind, is a basic Lake Wobegone effect: if everyone is extraordinary, then no one is. The whole thing makes me rather tired.
The overall effect of this is clearest in the main protagonist, Indris. Indris is probably around Kvothe-level MariSuitude: he's incredibly handsome, extraordinarily intelligent, and superlatively powerful. He is a warrior-mage, a past member of the elite scholar/warrior group (he was the best in his class, but left because of true love), is related by blood and marriage to the highest nobility, and carries a magical sword which grants him even more power. His nicknames include "Dragon-Eyed Indris" and "Prince of Diamonds," and he is universally respected and feared. As his old teacher, incidentally called "Stormbringer," says of him:
“Though I’d never tell him, believe me when I say Indris is to me as I am to the students whose heads I try to cram with wisdom. He doesn’t know it yet, but the time will come when he realizes he follows in the footsteps of the greatest of the mahjirahn.”
Even when Indris goes up against all the other heroically nicknamed people, he can defeat them with ease--unless, of course, the plot demands otherwise. As one observer notes,
“There was no wasted movement. No...effort. It seemed as if he varely paid attention. His blade was everywhere it needed to be. Wherever it fell it took a life.”
If Indris doesn't see the need to pay attention, why should I?
Indris travels around with a plucky group of lackeys sidekicks, including an exotic Seethe Action Girl who adores him, a strong but simple bowman, and a poetry-spouting and deadpan-humorous dead soul in a Wraithjar. After the loss of his True Love, Indris has fallen into a funk that leaves him unwilling to take action. He is, rather perplexingly, simultaneously the jaded rebel and the obedient soldier; he hesitates before helping his kin when the entire kingdom is at stake, and actually tries to jump ship multiple times, but then says things like, "I've done everything you've asked of me." Despite that, people are constantly ascribing noble motives to him. He is told that "You're the very best of men" and "your death is more than I could stand," but I'm a bit puzzled to what he did to earn the praise. In my opinion, his shilly-shallying is to blame for most of the chaos and the subsequent length of the book. Indris's peculiar sense of justice and nobility means that he continually spares the rabidly evil characters, but has no issue slaying a horde of unnamed lackeys.
For all that, Indris is nowhere near my least favourite character: the main female protagonist, Mari, walks away with that prize. Mari, the daughter of the evil Corajidin, is placed in the service of the ashrahn (high king) as a spy. She's quite successful in the position: even though everyone knows her parentage, the king is perfectly willing to have top-secret discussions with Mari guarding the door. Mari is oh-so-torn between her duty to her rabidly insane father and her duty to the dude to whom she has sworn fealty; throughout the entire narrative, she dithers in indecision between the two, repeatedly attempting to make weak-willed and indecisive compromises.(show spoiler)
I really regret not being able to enjoy this book more. Even though I found the worldbuilding extremely impressive, I think everything from the curt writing style to the characters just rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most satisfying aspects, for me, was the last paragraph of the book. I know it is intended to be a cliffhanger, and while it isn't enough to get me to read the next book, I found it quite amusing. Overall, if I could have read the book solely for the worldbuilding and could have ignored the characters and plot, I think I would have been impressed. My issues with the plot and characters are definitely quite unfair; I happily tolerate all the problematic tropes and even similar issues within urban fantasy, but I'm far too impatient with these aspects in epic fantasy. Maybe Garden of Stones is just a much-needed reminder that I simply can't tolerate unrelieved earnestness and phenomenally powerful protagonists. If you are an epic fantasy reader and are looking for an interesting new world to explore, then you should definitely give this one a try.
~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, 47North, in exchange for my honest review. ~~
*The whole gun-toting, fast-talking, chauvinist, trenchcoated hero who goes around accidentally blowing up the mean streets thing, for example. Yeah, I know.