I’m a sucker for exemplary, complex characters and Heart of Stone has them in spades. First and foremost, the owner of the eponymous heart of stone itself, our golem Task. After four hundred years of destruction and slaughter over hundreds of battlefields in dozens of wars, Task still has an untapped fount of compassion and empathy for these creatures of flesh and bone that he’s been forced to kill by the will of his many masters. He is no dumb brute but an intelligent creature, challenged continually by the purpose for which he was made – to be the perfectly obedient war machine, a harbinger of death. This is, to the surprise of no one who has taken even a cursory glance at the blurb, one of the leading conflicts in the novel.
Yet more complex is the character of Ellia. She is one of those characters who will remain with me a long time, like Peter F. Hamilton’s Angela Tramelo (Great North Road) or Ken Follett’s Augusta Pilaster (A Dangerous Fortune). Ellia is a noblewoman whose loyalties aren’t clear-cut to begin with and only get murkier as the plot progresses. Ellia is the architect (pun intended, for the knowing) of most of what happens during the novel, using her wits to gain the upper hand over generals, lords, councillors and religious fanatics. Fuelled by horrific events of her past, the path Ellia chooses to pursue is understandable.
Alabast Flint is the source of much of the comic relief in this novel. A drunk dragon-slayer, he’s seen better days; more glorious, less prone on bouts of alcohol-induced amnesia days. He too, showcases Ben Galley’s talent in creating deep, fascinating characters. It’s a familiar trope done right – the reluctant participant with hidden reserves of nobility and heroism.
Last but not least in the list of our key characters is Lesky, a young girl with great ambition, a lot of spunk and several unexpected tricks you won’t see coming. She is the lever that propels Task’s heart to new heights and much more besides, in her own right.
What of the world?
It’s magnificent. Well, as magnificent as any world torn by a rend in reality. As wonderful as any country torn apart by a civil war and conflict between kinsmen. Needless to say, it’s a bit glum. Hell, it’s downright grimdark. There is magic but less the kind that awakens wonder in the reader and more the sort to arouse fear. Task himself is feared and misunderstood by many of the soldiers he serves with and virtually all the commanding officers. Impeccable detail makes this a world worth experiencing and going back to. Religion, I'm a bit murkier on but there's some interesting world building going on there, as well.
The high-quality banter between soldiers reminded me of some of my favourite series – Cook’s Black Company and Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Sent me right down memory lane, that banter did. Thanks, Ben! Now I have to reread 20 books. Thanks. Some of them are doorstoppers. Thank you. Stacked one on top of the other, they are literally taller than I am!
One thing I’m not a fan of is the use of a made-up curse word in place of a real-world expletive. It’s a pet peeve of mine but I’m sure it works for those who don’t care about obscenities.
I didn’t have much of a doubt I’d be giving Heart of Stone a 5/5; I have yet to read an SPFBO-winning fantasy that’s anything less than stellar. So here you go, Ben, you rogue! Have your 5/5!
You should read this if:
- You enjoy stories that are genuinely human at their core;
- You’ve got a thing about the kind of dark fantasy that ultimately offers more hope than you’d expect;
- You’re looking for compelling characters that’ll remain with you long after you’re done;
- You really like golems;
- You really like stone;
- You’re looking for a manual on how to betray everyone and everything to your own ultimate gain;
- And more! Prob’ly.
I read this book as part of the ongoing Ben Galley blog tour; thanks for the free copy and all the hard work in making this happen, @TheWriteReads.