SMOKE AND STONE by Michael R. Fletcher (Book Review)
The Last War is something of a misnomer. Dozens of wars were fought after the birth of Bastion, as those surviving gods battled for supremacy. This was a world of a thousand pantheons, ten thousand gods. Far too many to feed from the few surviving mortal souls. And so they cast out the losers, culled their own numbers.
Thus those that survived are the most dangerous, the most willing to betray their own.
We don’t have the gods we need, we have the gods we deserve.
Smoke and Stone is a fast-paced, narcotic-laced, titanic-sized struggle between gods where the final city of man is the playing field and champions will determine who will live, rule and prosper, and who will die. Bastion is the arena and was created by the gods to be an oasis of faith in an otherwise dead world, a way to concentrate the prayers, the souls and the blood of mankind so that it may sustain them for as long as possible.
The story is told through the two POVs of Nuru and Akachi. Each have different beginnings but very similar stories.
Nuru is part of a street crew in the poorest ring on Bastion. She is a Grower, a ‘dirt’, and her lot in life is to work, produce and die. If she were to have any children she would never know their identity. Nuru is also a street sorcerer and using various combinations of drugs, powders, seeds and fungi can manipulate the world around her, make contact with the spirit world and become the physical manifestation of the animal totems she carves. When she receives a vision of jade warriors with swords of obsidian marching though her ring, carving her friends from gullet to gut, the blood funnelling down perfectly formed gutters towards to the innermost ring where the Gods reside, she knows she must seek a different path to change.
Akachi is a young man of the cloth desperate to live up to his father’s accomplishments, and when he is sent to the Growers ring to reopen an abandoned church and bring the gods to the masses he senses an opportunity to do so. Armed with his own totems and the unshakable insanity of someone who is receiving messages from a god known as The Cloud Serpent he sets out to capture a young scarred girl who he believes is the key to avoiding his visions of death and destruction and ensuring his rise through the church. Nuru has sensed the same girl, though, and for her and her crew she might be the spark that will ignite a revolution.
I absolutely loved this first instalment of the City of Sacrifice series. It is an exciting and heart-pounding narrative, pared back so the reader barely has time to take a breath. I feel like Fletcher has done more in a little over 300 pages than a lot of writers can do in 500 but I never felt I was missing out on anything. At the start of each new chapter readers are given a small piece of backstory to grow their sense of the world and the stakes, but the story moves at a lightning pace with a focus on the characters and keeping them moving forward. Upon finishing, I stumbled upon the glossary and realised over half of the terms were not even used in this first book, and all it did was make me hungry for the rest. It’s all there. Every drug, every type of magic, and every god, it is as intricately detailed as possible and shows there is a hell of a lot of scope left in this story.
Smoke and Stone is grimdark, it’s post-apocalyptic, it’s surreal as hell. If there is any justice in this world it should find no trouble finding an audience. If you have read Beyond Redemption you’ll know how committed and invested Fletcher is when he builds his world and the amazing depth he achieves. In this world we have a brilliant combination of The Poppy War, The Books of Babel and The Cabin in the Woods. We have tons of drug-induced magic, a city that is set up in ringdoms each with their own identity, and a people that must live with the constant threat of gods living and fighting beneath them. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this exciting new series and I can’t wait to see where Fletcher takes Nuru, Akachi and the city of Bastion.