‘The Stone Knife’ is the first book in the intended ‘Songs of the Drowned’ trilogy, a new gritty epic fantasy series by Anna Stephens. The writing is raw and visceral, the world-building broad in scope, and the characters varied and intriguing. It’s a book that demands attention – it took me almost a month to read, because I regularly didn’t have the concentration and energy it required – but when given its due, this is a worthwhile read.
Over decades, the tribes of Ixachipan have fallen one by one to the Empire of Songs. Now just two tribes – the Tokob and Yalot – remain, determined to hold onto their freedom. Tayan, a shaman of the Tokob, communes with his goddess and determines to seek peace with the Empire – but his husband Lilla is preparing for war, and their friend Xessa is struggling to keep the Tokob safe from the threat of the Drowned, crocodile-like beasts which guard the tribe’s only water source. Meanwhile, Enet – first courtesan of the Singer, the ruler of the Empire of Songs – is trying to hold onto her tenuous position in his court, and Pilos, High Feather of the Empire’s armies, is trying to assure the Empire’s dominance over Ixachipan whilst dealing with Enet’s meddling closer to home. Epic fantasies which show all sides of the story are fantastic, showing that no force is precisely right or wrong, and Stephens doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities committed by all sides in war.
The difficulty with large numbers of perspectives is it takes some time to adjust to and care about them all, and the story definitely starts slowly. The reader is introduced to the Tokob and their way of life – their shamanic rituals to their goddess Malel, their fight against the Drowned just to obtain water, the way each citizen swears their life to a certain path (e.g. the jaguar path for warriors or the snake path for those who face the Drowned). Once this is established, the counter perspectives – those living ‘under the song’ in the Empire – are gradually introduced. It takes a good 40% of the novel before everything settles and the story can start to gather pace. It also leads to some characters – especially Tayan and Xessa – being easier to care about than others. Xessa especially is a fascinating character – it’s unusual to see a Deaf character in fantasy, and the way this is both an asset and hindrance depending on the circumstance is well written. She’s also feisty, strong-willed, and has an unbelievably sweet romantic arc as well as the most loyal canine companion of all time.
The setting, Ixachipan, is inspired by central American civilisations. It’s a forest environment, with seasons of rain and drought playing a huge part in shaping society. While the central American influence is clear, the direction Stephens has taken it feels fresh and unique, and the additional fantasy elements are worked in seamlessly. An industrial colonising empire vs those with a more traditional way of life has been written many times before in many iterations, but Stephens blends in new ideas to keep this from feeling stale.
The diversity is also excellent. Gender – and attraction to genders – is mostly irrelevant in both Pechaqueh and Tokob society, with a central relationship between two male characters (Lilla and Tayan), and as many female warriors as male. Xessa is Deaf, and whilst there’s mention that this would likely lead to her death if she was born into the Empire, it’s seen as an asset to the Tokob.
There are minor issues with ‘The Stone Knife’. All epic fantasies start slowly – it takes time to understand the world and differentiate and care about the wide range of characters – but the pacing throughout feels a tad erratic, with some sections veering away from action to several paragraphs of explanation or time-skipping. Certain characters are also particularly irritating – there was one in particular who almost made me want to skip sections – and whilst I respect the author for writing difficult characters, it detracted from my enjoyment. However, it’s a solid novel and builds plenty of intrigue for what happens next.
This reads more like a Part One than a complete novel, with plenty of cliffhangers awaiting resolution in Book Two. I’ll definitely be picking up the second to find out what happens next.
Overall, this is a highly intriguing first book that creates an excellent – if dark – world with plenty of potential, populated by a diverse group of fascinating characters. Recommended for all fans of darker, grittier epic fantasy and diverse worlds.
Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 26th November 2020
Thanks to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of my review