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ARC provided by the publisher—Harper Voyager—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover illustration by: Stephen Mulcahey
The Stone Knife by Anna Stephens
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Songs of the Drowned (Book #1 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Pages: 608 pages (UK Hardback)
Published: 26th November 2020 by Harper Voyager
This was amazing. Great characters, lethal actions, and so much bloodbath; a vampire reading this book would probably find their thirst satiated.
This is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me; I am thoroughly impressed by what Stephens has crafted here. Her debut, Godblind, was a good grimdark novel that I liked, but The Stone Knife? Oh boy, it was absolutely bloody and magnificent. I personally think that Stephens’ skill as a storyteller has improved significantly since the release of her debut. That said, I’ve heard from many readers that the rest of the Godblind Trilogy has indeed displayed Stephens’ growth as a storyteller already, so it could just be that I’m missing on that actions. And honestly speaking, after reading The Stone Knife, I would be crazy to disregard that notion.
The Stone Knife is the first book in The Songs of the Drowned trilogy by Anna Stephens, and the story takes place in the forests of Ixachipan. For generations, nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs—their endless, magical music undefeated. And now, only two free tribes—Tokoban and Yalotlan—remain in Ixachipan, and they won’t submit to the Empire’s total domination. To make the struggle even worse for the tribes, the Empire has the Drowned—monstrous and scaled predators with their own magical music—at their side. I loved this book; it’s a different sort of beast from Godblind, and I am so damn pleased that Stephens has decided to write this rather than continue writing in the Godblind world. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m sure if she has decided to write more books that takes place in the same world as her previous series, it would be great as well, but there’s something about authors writing a new series in a new world that always excites me. This is a vicious tale about gods, monsters, love, loyalty, friendship, faith, and freedom.
“That’s what it sounded like. It sounded like the sunset looks. It sounded like all the world is there just to make you gasp with wonder, to open your heart so wide that it can absorb all that beauty and hold it and be it and never lose it, no matter what. That’s what the songs of the Drowned sound like.”
To me, one of the most noticeable differences between Godblind and The Stone Knife is the longevity of their chapters. In Godblind, Stephens uses very short chapters to prioritized fast-pacing, actions, and dialogue. The Stone Knife, however, is the other way around; chapters are longer, and Stephens focuses on characterizations and world-building first before filling the pages with blood. My preferences are definitely lean towards what she did in The Stone Knife. Although it took me around a quarter of the book to navigate and acclimate myself to the names and terms, I never felt bored because I found the setting and the intricate world-building—inspired by ancient Central American civilization—to be so refreshing. Also, there’s no info-dump; the majority of the unique names and terminologies are understood/learned through the context of the narrative, and she did it so well. Most importantly, the characters and their characterizations was terrifically written.
“I don’t ever want to be like that, she thought suddenly. I don’t want to have killed so many that it means nothing. I don’t want to be dead behind the eyes or in the heart.”
The story in The Stone Knife is told through the perspectives of seven characters—Xessa, Tayan, Etne, Lilla, Pilos, Ilandeh, and The Singer. Guess what? I’m so invested in all of them. Excluding the fact that there’s already a goodest boy named Ossa aside, I think Stephens has successfully nailed a great job of personifying her many characters here. Either faith, love, or both drives the motivation of these main characters; I personally found them all to be well-realized. It’s not often I praise romance subplots, and there were two or three romance subplots here, but I have to give my praises to Stephens on this aspect; the character’s love and fear for their loved ones were so palpable. Additionally, the disability and LGBT representation in the characters also felt totally genuine. Simply put, I loved reading all the character’s POV. But please do not let these lead you into thinking this is a romance book; oh god, this violent book will color your imagination red.
“You’ve broken the song and doomed us all, Great Octave. All that comes next, you have caused. All of it.”
Stephens has outdone herself on the creation of characters of Etne and the Singer. Yes, my favorite POV characters to read were Etne, The Singer, and Tayan. If you’ve read this book, or about to, before you call me deprave of sanity for claiming Etne as my favorite POV to read, let me first clarify that I don’t love her character; I doubt she was ever created to be likable anyway. However, her POV chapters were unputdownable, crucial, fierce, and engaging; I consider it a sign of a great storyteller when they’re able to make me THIS compelled to read an unlikable character’s storyline, and that’s what Stephens effectively did with Etne and her development with The Singer. The gradual changes in the tone of The Singer’s introspection were just spectacular.
As I mentioned, this is a pretty brutal book; this isn’t really grimdark, in my opinion, but the violence enacted is full-throttle. If you’re averse to reading much blood and gore, I suggest you read a different book or wait until you’re in the right mood for it. Stephens’ actions are merciless, and she unquestionably excels at keeping the intensity and emotions of each scene intact. Peace negotiations and dialogues ended up being some of the most pulse-pounding scenes in the book. I sometimes find that the loudest volume can be found in the sound of silence, and there were many moments in the book where that voiceless moments amplified the tension so much. The battle scenes were mostly spread out here and there throughout the entire book, but in the final 15%, Stephens totally pull out all the stops; the unleashed insane chaos were impossible to untamed (haha), and I can’t help but found myself intoxicated by the power of the blood song.
“My song will drive them to ruin. Those who live will do so in the agony of their wrongdoing. I am the song and it is bloody. I am the song and it is war.”
The crimson macabre sequences demonstrated by Stephens in The Stone Knife will stay with its readers for a long time. Whether it’s peaceful tranquility or ruthless bloodshed, the scarlet claw in the narrative had a visceral grip on the reader’s emotions and attention. I highly urge readers of epic fantasy with a darker tone and grey morality to join the rank of the violent Melody with me. I utterly look forward to the next Chorus in the series. Harper Voyager, if you’re reading this, promote this book; you have something special in your catalog here.
Official release date: 26th November 2020
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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