Author: Anna Stephens
Release date: 26 November 2020
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Grimdark
For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.
The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.
As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.
Take up in the bloodbath (violence and gore galore!) signature in Anna Stephens’s Godblind trilogy, throw in survival horror and Central American-inspired fantasy set, and you’ve set yourself up for Stephens’s latest offering The Stone Knife – the first of her new series The Songs of the Drowned.
When I first heard of Godblind, Stephens had gone viral for a certain scene in which a hammer was involved. Needless to say, said scene was my very first impression of her works and I thought: “Wow. She fits right in the grimdark aesthetic.”
(For those not in the loop about the “hammer scene,” I suggest extreme caution before looking it up because it was *that* violent and certainly not for the faint of heart – although I highly doubt anything in Stephens’s works are)
Anyways, I was taken by surprise with the trilogy as I found that despite its grimdark nature, it had a lot of heart. It was a completely different experience compared to what I’d read in A Song of Ice and Fire series and expected from many other grimdark titles. It had thoroughly shaped my expectations from the kind of grimdark fantasies I enjoy – and I am pleased to say that The Stone Knife perfectly hit the mark for me, so to say.
In the forests of Ixachipan, nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs—their endless, magical music undefeated for generations long. What remains of the free tribes, Tokoban and Yalotlan, remain in Ixachipan facing threats from both the Empire’s impending domination and the threat of the Drowned—monstrous and scaled predators with a magical music of their own.
From the get-go, I knew The Stone Knife was going to be different from Godblind. This was evident in Stephens’s use of ominous interludes between chapters, and the more character-focused narrative she employs throughout the book. The Stone Knife starts out with such a dangerous opening enough to unsettle but spends most of its earlier pages laying down the Ixachipan and its beating hearts. Sure, it took a while for me to navigate the semantics and mechanics in Ixachipan but Stephens’s prose weaves those details to the narrative seamlessly and her world is refreshingly vast with wonder. I was also able to take in all the various main point of views and where they are rooted in the world. As if trained, I foresaw the lines for all the pieces of the narrative and the general trajectories they might intersect with each other. Ill-fated as it may be, the process is so indulgent I could not help but keep going through the pages, driven by thirst for more. Both the gritty and the tranquil are laid down in The Stone Knife, whereas Godblind opted for a blood-first approach; and I think this approach appeals to me a lot more. After opening with a mostly tranquil status quo with sprinkles of horror here and there, The Stone Knife injects one with a poisonous fear that everything is going to go horribly wrong; and per the rules of Anna Stephens-verse, go bloody wrong they do indeed.
Aside from her infamous “hammer” scene in Godblind, Stephens had also made quite a name for herself for her quick, adrenaline-pumping, and visceral action sequences. The Stone Knife drives up the violence to full-throttle, reasonably spreading out in sparse rations the first half of the book. Once the pieces on the board clash together though? The stage descends to utter insanity. The set pieces in The Stone Knife are utterly merciless and especially decadent, layered with overflowing emotions and tension that have stewed for so long in (relative) peacetime conflict its release is both cathartic and terrifying to witness.
Stephens also particularly excels in her ability to simultaneously draw the clear line between the protagonists and the antagonists in her stories, yet also blurring said line. Stephens’s execution was something else I had regarded it one of her trademark crafts, and I was incredibly pleased to see this aspect return stronger – which I attribute to her masterful characterization. While we still witness the clear division between the “good” and the “bad” in the larger picture, the lines get blurry real fast when the perspective switches back and forth between the Empire and the free tribes. On both sides we see people simply existing with firm beliefs in their faith and relationships. Some are more likable than others, but everyone has something that makes their emotions palpable: love, fear for loved ones, guilt, ambition. These blurred lines soon introduce many riveting moments where beliefs are challenged and loyalties are tested. Regardless of loyalty, everyone paints a well-realized picture of the various shades of humanity. Context is a luxury that only us readers have in this story, and Stephens excellently integrates this fact as a hallmark of her writing.
The Stone Knife promptly takes this strength to highlight a key theme to its story: colonisation. Relatable and human as the characters in the Empire are, Stephens pulls no punches in exposing the devious workings of the Empire’s violent erasure of indigenous cultures in their so-called “assimilation programs.” Much of the conflict between the free tribes and the Empire of Songs hinges on the fact that the Empire forcibly uproots indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands—often by military invasion and subjugation—and converts them to a belief of their own. What little freedom and faith they have left are then restricted and molded to fit the Empire’s own picture. Aside from the survival horror the Drowned provide, Stephens injects plenty doses of social thriller/horror in exploring the illusion of choice life in the Empire offers – especially as a person “brought under the song.” Slavery is framed as a chance to properly assimilate and “earn” the right to enter the Empire’s mainstream culture, and any dissent is swiftly threatened with death in the hands of the Drowned that the Empire worships as the divine entity “holy Setatmeh.” What loyalty forms once someone “assimilates” is one based on fear, ambition, or greed. The Empire may pat its back by singing praises of how they foster equality, peace, and harmony but Stephens makes sure to let readers know of its true nature: it takes, takes, and only takes.
Reading The Stone Knife, I’d made a lot of comparisons to Stephens’s first grimdark novel Godblind and I think it’s fair enough to say that The Stone Knife is a mark of Stephens’s vast growth as a writer. She retains her core strengths: visceral prose, bloody carnages, violent clash of beliefs, and masterful character work; and sets them in an ambitiously complex world to explore her equally ambitious themes. There is much violence, pain, and gore abound amidst the twists and turns, but so are love, hope, ambition, and desires (dark and/or otherwise). Beautifully woven and executed, The Stone Knife is sure to be a breathtaking read.
The Stone Knife has a lot of heart, and is as brutally bloody as the fantasy scene has come to expect from Anna Stephens’s works. The Stone Knife, however, also raises her personal bar to new heights as she explores colonialism with her own blood-soaked take. Never has music sounded more terrifying in The Stone Knife, where colonisation is as unapologetically bloody as it is devious. It is indisputably one of the most impressively insidious entries in the fantasy genre I’ve read in 2020. A violent, dark, and beautiful song, The Stone Knife is a powerful start to Stephens’s new series The Songs of the Drowned.
Anna Stephens is back; and don’t you worry, fans. She is bloodier, grittier, and better than ever.
The Stone Knife is available for pre-order, set for official release on 26 November 2020 worldwide.
My many thanks to NetGalley, and HarperVoyager for providing an e-ARC of this book for an honest review.