CARVED FROM STONE AND DREAM by T. Frohock (Book Review)
This is the fifth story in Teresa Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, though it’s the second that is a more conventional full novel length, rather than the novella size of volumes 1 to 3. Like Where Oblivion Lives, its immediate predecessor, Carved from Stone and Dream can be read as a standalone novel. While we follow the same close-knit families of the preceding books, the story has skipped ahead eight years and the new reader can quickly slip into immersion in the world of Diago, Miquel and Rafael, of Guillermo, Juanita and Ysabel.
Like many a good fantasy, Carved from Stone and Dream starts with a prologue. However, Frohock, with a typically individualistic approach, eschews the traditional prologue of an account of past mythology or the monster-demonstrating death of a disposable minor character. Instead we read a brief series of communiques between different branches of the Nephilim that bring the reader fully up to speed with the immediate history and context before turfing us out onto a chilly Pyrenean mountain side in early 1939, where four comrades are in a desperate flight from danger.
Frohock’s Nefilim are powerful immortal beings, capable of casting magic through songs and sigils, of reincarnation after death, of bearing children with angels, yet walking always in human form amongst ordinary mortals. The Nefilim serve “the Thrones,” a higher power of angels, if not exactly of heaven. The angels are as subject to faction and division as the world they oversee, a bitter realm fractured into countries sliding into the abyss of the Second World War. The divisions of the Nephilim mirror those between the nations in which they serve. So Los Nefilim (the Spanish branch of the Nephilim), losers in the Spanish Civil War, are defeated and in retreat.
Guillermo, Diago and two companions seek out a safe pass through the mountains to France. Miquel gathers his breath and his shattered troop of Nefilim in the unfriendly refugee camps of Argeles Sur Mer. The children, Ysabel and Diago, under Juanita’s angelic supervision maintain a Los Nefilim-in-exile outpost in the suburbs of Paris, hoping not to trespass too heavily on their French counterparts Les Nephilim. Great as the distances are that separate them, the families are stalked by a betrayal which will reunite them – albeit in a world of pain and torment.
What’s different this time
Rafael and Ysabel are older – 14 and 16 now, and bloodied by a civil war that was still brewing at the end of Where Oblivion Lives. The threat posed by Guillermo’s brother and would-be king of Los Nefilim, which stalked their home in Barcelona eight years earlier, has come back with a vengeance, splintering their families into a Nefilim diaspora. Frohock skilfully depicts the older children, the restlessness of teenagers striving for their place in an adult world; Ysabel striving for the gravitas required of a king’s heir in a foreign land, Rafael fearful for both his fathers and impatient with orders that constrain his action.
The story, too, transitions with the times, no longer the spooky country house horror of Where Oblivion Lives. In Carved From Stone and Dream the emphasis is more on action than suspense. Diago and Guillermo’s flight becomes almost an action movie sequence of danger and escape. Each solution spawns further problems and they must venture deep into a mountain complex to retrieve a vital stolen code book.
Following the Nefilim as they skulked through the multi-layered enemy fortress felt somewhere between
- a war movie of the Where Eagles Dare or Guns of Navarone or Great Escape variety, and
- a James Bond adventure striving to unravel Spectre’s latest scheme or drive their secret weapon to self-destruction.
It’s not all non-stop-action, though. The family bonds remain as strong as ever, linking the characters more tightly than any bonds of magic. The principle of diversity is so embedded in Frohock’s book it barely merits mentioning that Diago and Miquel are a couple – a pair of fathers to Rafael. Their sexuality is irrelevant; their relationship is everything.
Frohock’s magic system remains complex but different; inscribed wards are charged with musical notes and detonated to skin-crawling effect. Frohock does not pause in the action to lecture the reader on her systems – like the action, the magic sweeps the reader along at a brisk pace.
Guillermo jerked his gloves from his hands and snatched a beam of the day’s last light. Twisting the pale gold shaft into a ball, he shouted his song. The air crackled with the electricity of his aura. A stream of orange fire blazed from the stone set within his signet and encircled the glyph. Sparks showered the air.
Guillermo lobbed the sigil down onto the soldiers.
Dark forces muster against our protagonists; fallen angels walk with Guillermo’s disenfranchised elder brother Jordi, an Esau who has not forgiven his Jacob in all the lives they have lived since that birthright was first stolen. The German Nephilim, in league with the mortal Adolf Hitler, display a cruelty that foreshadows the human horror awaiting in the war still to come.
I read the last half of the book at pace, following the threads that Frohock has deftly woven together. You could see where the separate stories would converge, but not how.
As always, Frohock charts her own path between the genres, drawing on many, subscribing to none – an innovator of style more than a follower of fashion. There are glimpses of urban fantasy, of horror, of historical fantasy, as well as a big enough dose of tense action for a Hollywood blockbuster, but ultimately Carved From Stone and Dream is a unique and rewarding pleasure that defies categorisation.
CARVED FROM STONE AND DREAM (Los Nefilim #5) will be released on February 25th 2020. You can pre-order it here.