Nuru and her friends live in Bastion, the last refuge of humanity after an apocalyptic war. The reigning gods have established a caste system, and Nuru and her group are at the very bottom. Subject to brutal repression and human sacrifice at the hands of the priests, Nuru has a disturbing vision that leads her into a desperate fight for survival against a local priest and his retinue of sacred thugs.
The magic system in Smoke and Stone stands out as totally unique among fantasy novels I’ve encountered. The shamanistic spellcasting involves the use of hallucinogens and totems. Sorcerers slip into altered states of consciousness to pierce the veil between realities and contact strange spirits that can empower them in a number of ways. It is totally organic to the setting, and plays in important role in the character arcs of Nuru and her antagonist Akachi. With super cool magic that is unique and integral to the storyline, I give Smoke and Stone an A+ in this regard.
As always, there were a couple of things that didn’t quite click for me. Some dialogue felt too modern and a little out of place.” As fuck” and “Smells like balls in here” both stood out as a little awkward. The chapter quotes were also a little too perfectly expository and didn’t have the feel of sacred texts, which was what they purported to be. One of the minor characters was named Ibrahim, a prominent semitic name for a mesoamerican character. These are all pretty minor things. My only major beef was the character Chisulo. Specifically, we are told by the narrator many times that he is a natural charismatic leader, but we are shown zero initiative or leadership by him throughout the novel. It started to kind of bug me by the end that he was held up as this ideal leader by everyone, but in scene after scene he just seemed like a goodie-two-shoes noodle.
The gods play an important role in the narrative and in the city of Bastion. The old order was at some time in the distant past upended by a divine coup, exiling Mother Death to the wastes. This story follows Nuru as she is caught up in the next chapter of this divine struggle. The way that religion and priesthood intertwines with the characters, story, and magic, is really exemplary. All of these things dovetail into a narrative that feels very authentic and masterfully orchestrated. Smoke and Stone has some very cool sorcerous duels and weird otherworldly visions that satisfy the cravings that drive me to devour fantasy novels.
I recommend Smoke and Stone to grimdark enthusiasts looking for a unique setting. It is a book chalk full of brutal fight scenes, characters pushing past their moral boundaries, and nightmarish glimpses into a world crafted to appease the dark hungers of the gods.