BLACK STONE HEART by Michael R. Fletcher (SPFBO 6 FINALIST REVIEW)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
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Dark Lords returning to confront the descendants of the people who overthrew them have been a staple of fantasy fiction since Morgoth first raised Thangorodrim, and multiply-defeated Sauron brooded with menaces in Barad-dur, still less when Voldemort lurked on the back of Professor Quirrell’s turbaned head.
It makes for a compelling trope that obliges the little people (in rank and/or stature), despite wishing it need not have happened in their time, to rise up and decide what to do with the time that is given them. However, it is a trope that has become somewhat tired as the band of reluctant heroes inevitably end up searching for the unique weapon/artefacts that will unlock the dark lord’s destruction.
Writers have found different ways to stray from the conventions of risen dark lordness and Michael R Fletcher has found a fresh way to not simply subvert, but invert that trope with a tale told from the slightly confused first person(s) perspective of the fragmented but resurgent dark lord.
So – without further ado – a look at what our reviewers made of it.
Michael R. Fletcher
A broken man, Khraen awakens alone and lost. His stone heart has been shattered, littered across the world. With each piece, he regains some small shard of the man he once was.
He follows the trail, fragment by fragment, remembering his terrible past.
There was a woman.
There was a sword.
There was an end to sorrow.
Khraen walks the obsidian path.
Julia: First of all, a warning. This is proper grimdark, and not for the faint of heart.
Beth: Resists urge to dive into the WHAT IS GRIMDARK THO argument.
Julia: In Black Stone Heart, Fletcher has delivered a really dark story that gets deeper the longer you’re in its grasp. Khraen, the main character, starts off knowing basically nothing about himself or the wider world. He is looking for obsidian shards that seem to be holding the secrets of his past. On that quest he slowly starts to explore and learn not just about what happened before, but also about the world. And while we get to follow his plot, and his world, his distinctive voice gets stronger and stronger until it feels like you really are inside the story.
Theo: It is an interesting theme and opening. Demi Harper’s God of Gnomes had a similar approach of once-dead being awakens in a new form and is haunted by fragmentary echoes of his evil past, however that book branched into the entirely different world of LitRPG.
Fletcher’s piece is rooted in character and I like how the protagonist is surprised by the way strange concepts and words surface in his own mind. I do like the playing with memory and identity trope and this reminds me a bit of a scene in one of the Frankenstein movies where the monster is wondering how he can “remember” to play the flute.
Nils: That’s an excellent comparison Theo, I actually think a lot of the second half of the novel reminded me of Frankenstein too, but more the book by Mary Shelley.
Firstly I want to mention the cover because that’s the first thing which caught my eye. The vibrant hues of pink and purple against the black really worked for me, it spoke of a ruined, dark desolate world in which the figure in the foreground was about to enter. I’ve seen a newer edition (I believe for the hardback?) which is completely in shades of grey and black, which although may reflect the inside of the book better, I don’t find as appealing.
Beth: I do love this cover! It’s quite distinctive!
Filip: It is a stunning work!
Nils: It is!
Julia and Theo both sum up the plot really well, and this initial premise intrigued me, in fact I found the whole exploration of memories very akin to Last Memoria which I’d read just previously to this one – however Fletcher’s world is a far darker one. As I began reading my first thought was that the prose was very poignant and well written. I began highlighting quotes such as this one;
“We blunder through life, writing our failures and excuses as we go, defending every choice with justifications made up after the fact. The truth is, we never really consider the consequences.
My choices had consequences.
which I found was very reflective and made me begin to understand the main character Khraen’s psyche a bit better as he is conflicted with a sense of who he was in his past and what kind of person he should be now. This was an aspect I found fascinating.
However, where I began to find issues was the level of violence we are presented with from the very first few pages. Now I’d like to say I’m fine with grimdark books, I’ve read a lot with violence and gore, but what’s important to me is that this violence serves a purpose to the plot, that it is not there to be edgy or for merely shock value. Unfortunately I found Fletcher fell into this category for me personally. For example Khraen kills a boy ten years of age, he slits his throat for no reason that I could see. The boy was ten, he was of very little threat to him. As I read on I found things became rather gross too – I don’t know how else to describe it, but yeah there were certain scenes which actually made me feel queasy, but I’ll talk about that later on.
Beth: This was a book of two halves for me. My initial impressions were favourable; despite the violence I found Fletcher’s writing style very easy to read and it commanded my attention. I love thought-provoking prose, such as the quote above from Nils.
I also really appreciated the stylistic elements of a protagonist new to existence – what Theo mentioned about questioning sudden memories or word choices, but also things like how simplistic the world building is to begin with and increases in detail the more memories Khraen acquires.
Filip: Black Stone Heart leaves a lasting impression from the get-go, its prose cutting deep into the bleakest elements of the human condition. Theo’s comparison of Khraen to Frankenstein’s creature is apt indeed–like the creature, Black Stone Heart’s protagonist is born innocent into the world, and shaped by its unceasing cruelty. The difference, of course, is that Khraen is a shattered fragment of an ancient creature, and the sliver of darkness within is…while not inevitable, its effects on Fletcher’s protagonist draw him towards ever greater acts of depravity.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Julia: I especially liked how Khraen feels like a piece of unworked clay and his personality only slowly evolves. Not a bad person, but finding himself alone and without memory he also doesn’t have any imprinted moral code, so it’s very intriguing to see how this character is gaining his own personality. The descent – expected since this is a book by Michael R. Fletcher – into darkness is so natural and gradually done that you hardly notice how you start to root for someone who definitely is not a hero. But he’s just doing what the situation demands, isn’t he? Is he?
Beth: I wouldn’t say I was rooting for him? Maybe the opposite? I got sadder and sadder the more he descended!
Julia: Aside from him I did like the other main characters as well, though compared to how well he was fleshed out, they seemed a little bit less real to me.
Beth: Ha! Pun intended Julia??
Julia: Me? Never!
Theo: Khraen is not a sympathetic protagonist, he starts murdering people within the first few pages and – in a slightly fits and starts fashion – accelerates from there. However, he is always a compelling protagonist. He is more brutal than Mark Lawrence’s Jorg but also more reflective, he watches his own descent into darkness with a kind of detached curiosity. He’s also no Marty Sue – he may heal better than most but he is still fragile, mortal and prone to having his best laid plans explode in his face. As Julia says, his descent into utter evil is a slow creeping thing that even he doesn’t really notice until he asks his companion
“Is that evil?” Such a stupid question. “Are we evil?”
Shalayn and Henka, in their different ways and their different loves for Khraen are also pretty compelling. While Henka’s adoration is fully rationalised later, Shalayn’s intoxication with lust, love and alcohol seems to stem from a fondness for trouble.
Nils: I wouldn’t say any of the characters are particularly likeable but out of the three main ones I did like Shalayn the most. I feel there was more beneath her affinity towards alcohol, sex and danger. I think she was a lonely character who wanted love and companionship in a world which was cold and cruel. In a way Khraen was the perfect match for her as he wanted something similar from her.
As for Khraen, at first there were aspects about him which intrigued me, as Theo mentions, particularly when he debated within himself what being evil truly meant. Yet I really struggled to get past certain other aspects of his character, for example his constant horny nature and his constant objectifying of the female body.
“Though her pale face remained mostly untouched, Henka had shed the hairy limbs, her torso looked subtly wrong, breasts a little too big, her skin that of a woman of her forties. A vast improvement over the hairy wizard’s flesh, but a long way from the flawless girl I knew.”
A woman over forty can’t be beautiful? What exactly constitutes a flawless body? You could argue that this is how a boy of nineteen would think, or that it’s just part of his character’s flaws, but I will also argue that there are better, more nuanced ways to present a male protagonist in a grimdark world, they don’t have to be dicks, I’ve read many who aren’t.
The third main character was Henka, a necromancer, a corpse, who spends the latter half of the novel with Khraen. I don’t really have much to add about her, other than I found scenes with her rather grotesque – (*spoiler*) I mean I draw the line at necrophilia, and yes, this character and Khraen do that too.
Filip: I’d be happy to see any of our pathologist readers submit a five-thousand word paper on whether sexual relations with the undead fall under necrophilia.
“I dreamed of dead lips and a gelid tongue, chill fingers fumbling at my pants and working me to hardness. I dreamed of a cold mouth and entering a corpse slick with rot.”
Beth: I’m not sure where I stand on the characters to be honest! I thought they were very well crafted and Fletcher doesn’t succumb to typical tropes. I quite liked Khraen and Shalayn’s relationship, it was nice to read a female character who was confident about what she wanted and was comfortable in her own skin, whilst at the same time being vulnerable from some past betrayal.
I’m not sure I can be confident in saying I liked any of the characters? Or at any rate, I didn’t think I did; but as Khraen evolved I found myself feeling more and more sorry for the version of himself he was moving away from, whilst questioning all the while whether he was ever being really true to his professions of what he wanted to be anyway. Ultimately, he lies to himself a lot.
I found the objectification really annoying too, and the fact he kept blaming it on “his nineteen year old body”. But like Nils said, I do think this is a part of his flaw – in that he can’t face the kind of person he truly is, and looks for other things to blame. Not all nineteen year old boys are that prickish. They wouldn’t all survive, surely.
Filip: I agree with both of you, Beth and Nils. Khraen is the kind of man who will profess the necessity of all he does, using that as an excuse to commit the gravest, vilest acts over others. From survival to self-discovery to avarice and vengeance, Khraen serves himself. He recognizes the wrongness of what he does, yet pushes on, unceasing. The objectification Nils spoke of strikes me as another fragment of this self-serving nature; whatever thoughts might go through his head, Khraen is incapable of looking past himself. He rationalizes on and on and on, but does not exhibit empathy–not even to himself.
He’s not likable, but he is damn compelling.
My great issue with Khraen comes towards the end of the book, when Fletcher reveals several twists that most readers see a mile away–while Khraen himself is utterly clueless. The protagonist’s reaction diminishes his intelligence and perspective both; he is caught utterly clueless, dumbfounded, despite his own first-person narrative providing us readers with every clue necessary. That is my one massive issue with Black Stone Heart.
Beth: For once, something being obvious to me but not to the protagonist didn’t bother me; I completely believed that Khraen was blinded by his narcissism, so it made sense to me that he was clueless and dumbfounded.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
Julia: Once again Michael Fletcher manages to spellbind you into this grimdark spiral of madness, and yet it feels so very fluent and logical it makes you take a double take at your own thoughts and emotions. The story is perfectly balanced on a fine edge, it holds the reader’s attention all the way as the characters grow, develop and come alive in your mind.
Beth: Logical? Should we be worried about you Julia??
Nils: I wondered that too!
Julia: I do keep telling you… Keep your annoying emotions and just do what needs be done! A few corpses on the way… *shrugs*
Filip: I’m with you to a point, Julia–that ending breaks the internal logic of the story for me.
Theo: Black Stone Heart reads very smoothly – flowing like a good Irish Whiskey – so that I finished it in just a couple of days.
It is a well paced story whose plot curves in pleasing ways without providing the sharp surprises of some other finalists.
I anticipated a couple of the key plot twists but there is a satisfaction in picking up on the foreshadowing and clues the author has planted, certainly Fletcher plays fair by his readers.
Nils: I feel this is very much a story of self discovery and one of revenge. Like I have mentioned before a lot of the themes within this novel are ones you will find in Last Memoria and Frankenstein – I felt when the narrative focused on Khraen contemplating about the man he once was and how he could be better now, and in his reflection upon being evil, it was very well done and I was much more engaged and compelled to read on. However, unlike Theo and Julia, as the narrative moved into his slow descent into darkness I’m afraid my interest waned.
Myself and Beth, like we have for all of the finalists, read this together, and from very early on we both did suspect some of the plot twists. I‘m once again impressed by how Beth spotted one I didn’t! Seriously the Beth Test™️ should be an actual thing; if your twist slips by Beth then you’re onto a good thing!
Beth: Maybe I should copyright that…
I’m on Nils’ side of the fence for this one I’m afraid! There is a distinct turning point in the book, when Khraen is on the precipice. Up until that point, I was really enjoying where the story seemed to be going, but after that, as he descended further and further, it lost me a little. It’s very much a personal thing, I’ve had a dark enough year as it is so I’ve really struggled with the darker books in this contest as a whole. The gore and necrophilia were often a bit too much for me, too.
I tried to take a step back and admire the manipulations of Henka, and I wanted to be able to enjoy the mystery of who she was. I think in another frame of mind, I could have really appreciated the psychology of it, the lies and excuses Khraen constantly feeds himself represented by the blood Henka must constantly feed herself. But it wasn’t an enjoyable read for me. The twists were nice but not unexpected. The best part of this SPFBO, for me, has been whatsapping Nils our theories back and forth; so in that regard, at least this was a story that had us chatting and theorising a lot!
But most unsatisfying of all, there isn’t a clear ending!
Nils: Ah yes, this bothered me too.
Beth: There’s a couple of books that have done this to us this contest, where the focus has been bigger than, beyond, a first book in a series. Their goal was his ancient capital, and (sorry, spoilers) we don’t get there, so in one sense, it feels like the book hasn’t finished as they’re still trying to get there. I think maybe if their goal had just been Nachi, they resolved the things they needed to, and then their next goal was PalTaq, then there’d have been a sense of a resolution which in turn opens the story to be continued on.
Filip: Am I the only one who thought of CalTech every time Khraen made mention of PalTaq? Yes?
Right, the plot of Black Stone Heart does not let up, not until the very end, when the novel comes to a close on a cliffhanger. It’s a shame that we get no more definitive a close, rather than – but Fletcher’s is a tried and tested strategy to get readers hooked. I know I’m eager to jump into the sequel…
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Julia: Black Stone Heart is set in a medieval style world with wizards, necromancers and demons. It’s familiar enough to allow the reader to dive right in, and yet has enough new things to discover, so it always keeps up the interest. And it isn’t limited to just that one plane of existence either…
I loved seeing necromancy, mage towers and so many other little bits of a unique world!
Theo: Who amongst us has not yearned to write or read a story about a long vanquished dark lord escaping the constraints of the powers that overthrew him and threatening the longstanding peace by coming into his own again. (I know I have!) Fletcher’s innovation is to write that epic tale in a single first person point of view and to make that person the Dark Lord himself. Khraen’s quest to assemble the scattered fragments of his shattered stone heart, and so recover his memories of who he was and how to be that person again, is like a flipped Harry Potter Horcrux quest. However, interestingly in the mix each fragment of Khraen seeds its own incarnation of him, a partial version that lives its own life, builds its own memories even as it quests (or not) to be brutally terminally reunited with the other fragments.
I like the way this plays with a sense of identity and memory and how far we can be guilty for things we cannot remember. Is amnesia an opportunity for rehabilitation? Will Khraen become wholly himself again or someone smaller, someone different, someone better. It’s a fascinating plot premise.
Beth: Yes Theo! Are we predestined to always become the same person?
Nils: Julia mentions some of the aspects I liked about the world, it’s a dark one indeed, but it has familiar elements such as wizards, necromancy, demons and humans too. I like that this was a world where the wizards weren’t wise old men out to save the world, but were in fact the ones to rewrite history and make themselves look like the heroes. They were as sinister and manipulative as the demons and I enjoyed that aspect a lot.
Beth: OR SO KHRAEN THINKS. Our experience of the wizards is very much what Khraen tells us…
Nils: That is very true… we don’t actually see the world through a different perspective so we can’t know for sure because Khraen is a very unreliable narrator. Good shout, Beth.
Filip: We have every reason to suspect much of what Khraen reports as twisted all the way up to eleven, but the counterpoint we could make is two-fold: the world is in rather a sorry state under the wizards’ stewardship; and the wizard with whom Khraen has a bit of give-and-take does give credence to that oft-repeated maxim that pointy hat-wearing folks are bastards, one and all!
Nils: It’s also a world which explores prejudices;, Khraen is black skinned, and therefore faces much racism from the paler races. Fletcher does a great job in challenging these attitudes, particularly towards the end.
As for the magic system I’m not sure I entirely understood all of how it worked – for example Henka needed to use the blood of humans to do sorcery to make herself warm like a human, or to heal. I didn’t quite understand why she couldn’t use animal blood, as she seemed to be able to use her powers to turn both animals and humans into her undead slaves.
Beth: Her system reminded me a lot of a vampire, but you make such a good point Nils, I hadn’t considered she could have been using animals. Presumably she could have been – right at the start, Khraen comments about the husks of animals and insects around him drained of life – but she chooses to use human blood…
Filip: My impression regarding this has to do with the potency of human life as opposed to an animal’s. I suspect we first meet her when she is using animal blood to sustain herself. At that point, Henka is a shadow of herself, once she begins to make use of human blood (what a strange frickin’ sentence to write!); it’s for that same reason that Khraen needs to spend the souls of humans rather than of animals.
Beth: There were certain elements I absolutely loved about Fletcher’s worldbuilding; namely, the obsidian castle (from the cover) and the wizard’s tower. I love magical architecture, when you step into somewhere which seems innocuous but turns out to be something entirely different. Like Howl’s moving castle. Like C. S. Lewis’ wardrobe. When Nils reached the point in the wizard’s tower she messaged me about it, rather unimpressed by the characters’ antics within the tower, but I loved that whole section and could have spent more time exploring either that tower and its contents or another. Are they all the same??
Nils: Ooh I’d have loved more scenes exploring the tower itself, I just found what they did in the tower became rather repetitive and tedious.
Beth: Repetitive. Snerk.
Quotations that resonated with you
Who was I? The kind of person who thought only of themselves? The kind of person who abandoned those in need?
I realized I’d asked the wrong question. Why let my unknown past define me?
It wasn’t, ‘Who was I?’ but rather, ‘Who am I?’
And still, I hesitated.
Theo: Fletcher has a nice line in descriptive prose
“A single filthy portal let in a brown stain of sunlight giving the room a leprous pallor.”
Of reflective comment
“She was insatiable in so many ways, an eternity of need. But aren’t we all? Doesn’t everyone want one more breath, one more meal?”
The conflict between who Khraen is and who he was is nicely drawn out
“My nineteen-year-old body was a constant distraction and I found myself missing the focus of a much older man, even though I remembered little of his life.”
“I wanted to escape into the man I had been. I wanted his cold, his distance.”
And even in the darkness Fletcher brings a light touch of humour
“We’re not here to hurt you,” I lied, which might have worked better if I hadn’t just broken his wife’s nose.
Nils: I liked this simple quote which reflects upon dark magic;
“Magic is just a tool. The purpose it’s used to defines whether it’s good or bad.”
Beth: It wasn’t all dark and grim and gore. This moment made me laugh out loud:
“There isn’t even room to wedge the tip of a sword between the door and the wall or floor,” I said.
“You try and do that to my sword, and I’ll smack you.”
Filip: All of these, and many more. Fletcher is beyond quotable.
Julia: I can’t recommend this one enough for anyone who likes a book without a clear black and white (or really any black and white) world, and isn’t squeamish about gore, sex and violence in their books.
Theo: A well paced, finely constructed read about an awfully compelling (or compellingly awful) protagonist. Not for the faint hearted, maybe not even for the stone hearted!
Nils: Overall I have to say that although I thoroughly enjoy the grimdark genre, Fletcher goes beyond it and delves into far darker and grotesque realms, which unfortunately wasn’t for me; it’s one thing to be squeamish about sex, and then there’s having sex with a corpse. It’s a shame because the prose, the themes and the overall narrative held so much promise of a story I’d otherwise have loved.
Beth: I love grimdark that explores the ideas of morality and the complexity of human nature. What makes a villain villainous? For me, the definition of grimdark lies in a worldview that there aren’t good guys and bad guys, just people. A worldview that has a realistic sense of what political scheming and battles would do to a society. Black Stone Heart certainly meets all those criteria. Black Stone Heart goes somewhere beyond the line of “squeamish” though. Like Khraen on his precipice, I felt this book sat on the precipice of grimdark and horror. Like Khraen, darker and more sinister than he claims.
Filip: I listened to Black Stone Heart almost a year ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. A tale so dark it’ll haunt you–in more good ways than bad, if you’re anything like me. Well worth experiencing…if you’ve a strong stomach and a love for the darkest of what fantasy has to offer.
(to nearest half mark)
Placed 5th in the Hive’s Finalist List.