Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher — Book Review
Black Stone Heart is a captivating grimdark fantasy novel, driven by a morally compromised protagonist in an ambitious setting that feels at once comfortable and arrestingly original.
Black Stone Heart tells the story of Khraen, a young man with the fragmented memories of a world and empire both long-gone. When we first meet Khraen, he is an animal, driven by instinct and ruled by the basic need to survive, no matter the cost. His progression towards something more makes for an engaging initial character arc, though his objective is altogether different – the reconstruction of his obsidian heart. Each piece is a piece of the puzzle of Khraen’s former life, revealing to him lost knowledge and granting him glimpses of a life that used to be.
Despite chasing the shards of his heart, Khraen’s great capacity for change is the driving factor of this novel—I suspect it will permeate the rest of the series, as well. The supporting characters play a part in this, driving Khraen towards or away from his old self. Fletcher has assembled quite the cast – a necromancer who stirs something up in our poor lad’s memories; a caravan guard who treats Khraen like a human being despite the midnight colour of his skin; an old friend who knows everything about Khraen’s former life but is a bit stand-offish when it comes to sharing; and plenty of mages, all of whom Khraen hates in a way that defies reason itself. Strange, that – as he is the victim of just such hatred himself. Everyone in the North, where Khraen awakens, sees the colour of his skin as a mark of the stain of his soul. Derided and loathed, Khraen doesn’t have much of a reason to like the society he discovers in this brand-new world.
This society is one ruled by wizards, those with the ability to stir chaos up and alter the very fabric of reality. But wizards are only one of many magic users – necromancers, I have mentioned, but there are also elementalists, sorcerers, and warlocks. These are schools of magic familiar to anyone who has spent more than an afternoon exploring role-playing games in the vein of D&D, but Fletcher puts a twist on each of them, managing to make them his own in the process, thanks in great part to the visceral, bone-chilling impact that spell-working has across the novel.
Demonology and its myriad practices in particular open up an engaging moral debate about the price of societal efficiency and progress, about crime and punishment, and the horrific cost of power. This practice forces Khraen to face certain aspects of himself, facets which are appalling and frightening for anyone to come to grips with – woven here with great skill by Fletcher.
My big issue with Black Stone Heart is about events that lead up to the finale and certain revelations that are made – twists I saw coming from a mile off. Khraen, who is portrayed as clever if somewhat naive, is blindsided by one revelation after another, discoveries that anyone in his shoes might’ve—should have—guessed at. For a book that contained so many pleasant surprises, the finale came across as a little guided, a little lacking in substance for the sake of shock value.
When I came to the end of my listen-through of Black Stone Heart, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between it and Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy in one aspect: Fletcher’s work echoes that theme so agonizingly prevalent in Abercrombie, in that people are indeed capable of great change…but they’re as likely to revert to who they used to be than make of themselves something new. The Obsidian Path is just getting started, however – and I am eager to see what direction it will go on before the final stop in this new series.
Listening to the audiobook narration, done by Fletcher himself, is the most engrossed I’ve been with an audiobook in months. The gravelly voice Fletcher opens with eventually reveals a stunning array of nuance –remarkable work, and fun to no end. The audiobook opens and closes with two pieces of original music performed by Fletcher and his band, which did a surprisingly good job of setting the mood for those opening chapters.
Black Stone Heart was riveting, pure and simple. It might be a little flawed—but that does not take away from my excitement at seeing Khraen’s journey continued.
You’ll enjoy this one if you:
- Like all things grimdark—the murdery bits, the stabby-stabby times, the people popping off in clouds of blood like angry little zits;
- Are looking for an actionable manual on demonology;
- Enjoy All Things Dark and Evil™;
- And more! Prob’ly.