Heart of Stone by Ben Galley
‘There will always be wars. And I will always fight them.’
Task is a soldier like no other. For one thing, he’s not human. For another, ‘following orders’ is not a choice, nor has disobedience ever been an option during his four long centuries of existence.
The reason for this is that Task – the dubious hero of Heart of Stone – is a golem. A cynical golem.
‘Task had seen enough history to know how it was made. History was a bloody mess, scraped up and strained into the books of the people who made the mess in the first place.’
Honestly, though, it’s no wonder he’s so jaded. Covered in a tarpaulin and subjected to the scorn of fearful sailors, Task is in the process of being shipped to his new master when the reader first meets him; just another weapon of war. At first his antagonism makes him oddly opaque and unreadable even though he’s the major POV. However, as the novel progresses, an unexpectedly gentle, wry humour begins to infuse his words.
It starts subtly, but over time these flights of humour settle naturally into the narrative, taking some of the edge off his resentment and underlying world-weariness. This gradual softening is helped along by Task’s reluctant interactions with some of the ‘skinbags’ he’s so determined to despise – most notably a fierce, intelligent farmgirl named Lesky.
Of course, a couple of chats with his newfound friends can’t erase the sardonicism of centuries…
‘Humans put far too much trust in their muskets. They wielded them like wizards’ staffs, as if just pointing and praying could solve any problem. Even an angry golem using half a tree as a club.’
… and over time it becomes apparent that Task’s remoteness is little more than a shield protecting a hitherto unseen vulnerability. What’s the one thing an undying creature fears more than any other?
‘While a man may balance in the grip of a noose, or tiptoe along the edge of a cliff, for immortal stone it is more difficult to flirt with finality.’
That’s right – Task may not experience physical pain, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to suffering. Having witnessed human wars beyond count, and knowing now that he’s the last of his own kind, he can think of nothing worse than having to endure, to see it all happen again.
But we’re venturing towards spoiler territory here, and since I’ve just read yet another glowing review of the book let’s talk generally about what doesn’t work quite as well. You know, to balance things out. Though admittedly, aside from the minor annoyances that arose from the (seemingly unnecessary) renaming of local fauna (as far as I could tell, fawls, ferns and warks are more or less just sheep, horses and dogs – so why not just call them that?!) – the book’s only real issue is in its plotting.
If we take ‘plot’ here to mean ‘the sequence of events that advances the story’, then it’s apparent that The Heart of Stone lacks balance. Let me be clear: by no means am I criticising the story. Far from it, in fact; Task’s character arc is, on the whole, well executed, and I admire the finesse with which the author uses Lesky’s character to advance Task’s story and bring it to a powerful and emotive close. However, the actual events surrounding this central tale are, I feel, a little bit too ambitious for a standalone novel. As such, certain aspects of the plot – for example, the wider conflict outside the civil war; the civil was which is (or should be) the book’s focus – felt awkward, as though the author had initially decided to set things up for a sequel, changed his mind, then crammed the premature end to that thread into a rushed, and slightly unsatisfying, conclusion. Conversely, other aspects of the book would have benefited from being given more page time: Alabast, for one, and Lord Lash for another. As it is, the other side of the conflict is introduced a little too late in the book for the reader to fully engage with.
As always, though, every reader’s reaction to a story is bound to be wildly, wonderfully unique. It’s entirely possible that I’m becoming grumpy in my old age, or that the flaws which I’ve perceived in Galley’s otherwise perfectly enjoyable novel are a product of the increasingly rising expectations of self-published genre fiction. (We can thank the #SPFBO for that!)
The main thing to take away from this, dear reader, is that Ben Galley can write. If you haven’t tried his books yet, then this is a perfect place to start. The Heart of Stone is a solid, competently written novel that fantasy fans can appreciate and enjoy. Galley has created memorable characters you’ll want to read more of and breathed life into an unconventional hero you probably won’t want to say goodbye to. The Heart of Stone is a very, very good read, despite being a bit rough in certain areas – just like Task himself. Besides, as Lesky will remind you: nobody’s perfect. And that’s just fine.
‘We all walk around pretendin’ we’re not broken in some way. Most spend their lives hiding it. But we are broken. And you know what? That’s fine. In fact, it’s perfect because it’s imperfect. Each crack, each blemish, each scar, whether of the skin or in the mind, they make us whole. We’re made through livin’, not by bein’ born.’