I like to think that I’m fairly well-versed in the grimdark sub-genre of fantasy. I’ve read a lot of titles by a lot of different authors that fall into this category and it happens to be a favorite of mine. Whatever the reason may be, I haven’t read anything by Michael R. Fletcher (until now). Considering how popular his books are amongst grimdark fans (I mean, his novel Beyond Redemption leads the scoreboard on author Mark Lawrence’s ranked grimdark list), I thought it time to remedy this. As Fletcher’s Black Stone Heart is currently a finalist in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, I decided this would be a perfect place to start. And let me tell you, it lives up to the hype. In all its twisted, chaotic glory, it lives up to the hype.
“Staying hidden, I watched it grow in size until I saw it was a man in white robes, standing upright, floating through the air. I hated him instantly, his superior ‘arms crossed over chest’ pose. His perfect goatee, long and braided with some trinket dangling at the end.”
Khraen hates wizards, but he doesn’t really remember why. In fact, he doesn’t really remember much of anything. That is, until he begins collecting pieces of his shattered, obsidian heart that have been scattered throughout the world. Now he’s beginning to remember – one memory at time – of an ancient, devastating, and horrific past that he most certainly played a role in. And Khraen wants to remember more.
Black Stone Heart is brilliantly insane – and I mean that in both a literal and figurative sense. As Khraen takes us on a violent, gruesome, and stomach-churning physical journey to obtain the missing pieces of his shattered obsidian heart, we are also pulled along an introspective journey through his chaotic and maddening mind, as he shares with us his deepest and darkest thoughts and desires. Khraen isn’t a good guy. Not even close. Seriously, far from it. In fact, he’s not even sure what kind of guy he is. But it is so damned hard not to root for him.
Fletcher is an incredible writer. All five senses are magnified when reading Black Stone Heart, simply due to his vivid, and oftentimes, sickening prose: you can smell the putrid stench of death in the air; you can hear the constant internal war between right and wrong; you can taste the stale, bitter ale in the grimy inn; you can see the hate and disgust on the faces of those who loathe the color of Khraen’s skin; and you can feel the stabbing, gutting, and dismembering of those who may or may not have deserved their fate.
Khraen isn’t, however, the only character in this story with a story to tell. Each of Fletcher’s supporting characters – Shalayn, Henka, Nhil, Tien – all have intricate, dynamic pasts and presents that he begins to reveal, layer by dark layer, throughout the course of the novel. While some are more fleshed out than others, I suspect that these stories will be further explored in the sequel. And I absolutely long to discover more.
While I own a paperback copy of Black Stone Heart, I decided to listen to the majority of it on audio. Fletcher does the narration for his book, and he nails it. The voices are purposeful and distinct, and I can’t get them out of my head. But listening to the book on audio didn’t stop me from frequently flipping through the pages of the book to admire the beautifully haunting illustrations that are strewn about, showcasing some pivotal scenes.
Black Stone Heart is a relentless and brutal, thought-provoking, paragon of grimdark fiction. One of the best I've read. I cannot recommend this enough.