“Hear these portents, oh would-be master of masters, you who would be prince of the world, for these signs will see the undoing of all you have wrought. Mark the day a mirror beggars you of your reflection. Beware the hand of a dead king who will bring you to your knees. Fear the phoenix where it rises from a garden of stone flowers—“
Every now and then I stumble across a debut author that’s trying something new, something truly original. He’s not pushing the envelope, so to say. He’s starting in a different letter altogether.
Mark T. Barnes’s The Garden of Stones reminds me a lot of Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun series. While both have flaws in their first novel, I feel they are the voices of a strong Science Fantasy/Weird sub-genre that is hard to explain. Both are so alike in their writing, yet so very different in their approach.
This book is like many speculative fiction novels, focusing largely on the setting. To that, Barnes receives the highest possible points; his imagination is breathtaking, beautiful, stunning. There isn’t enough words for me to describe the breadth of his creation. It could be summed up into a few genre labels such as Eastern influenced, Dying Sun-esque Epic Fantasy, but that would be doing this marvel a disservice.
But with all that jam packed into a 500 page debut, we get a little bit of clutter.
The beginning is where my first critique comes in. It’s very confusing. From what I’ve gathered, people are comparing it to the jarring start of Erikson’s Malazon series. All I can say is that Barnes uses a ton of new words and strange names, throwing every major character right onto our plates from the first few chapters.
There’s nothing wrong with this, expecting the reader to be intelligent and go with the flow right from the pistol shot. But it did take me about 20 percent for the story to finally click. I understand that he has a glossary at the back for this very reason, but I will recommend that if you pick this book up, go with a physical copy. I had an ebook, which doesn’t work well with flipping between places and the end.
Or maybe I’m doing it wrong. Probably am.
“Flee you men strayed too far from redemption, your prints as bloody sins upon the earth.”
The pace is slow burning, a stew that bubbles in the begging, reaches a fever pitch, steam rolling from that top, at around the 1/3 mark. From there, it calms down, meanders a bit, has fun. Barnes throws you at the top then lets you roll down, climbing every step of the way until about 2/3 of the way through where he rockets you straight up. It kicks into high gear, pages turning at a break neck speed. Resolutions come fast and hard, beautiful and unexpected. I can’t compliment him enough on the twists.
But I fear there is one major twist, not shown in this book, but in later installments, that I believe I’ve figured out. If it’s a red herring, then this author is one to watch out for.
This is a political novel, intersecting three POVs and treachery, sluggish but necessary. It doesn’t balance both sides of the ideas only creating an “understandable” POV in the bad guy of Corajidin.
On that same note, violence is actually sparing in the first half of the novel, a different take than the common gritty Western Fantasy we’ve been so enamored by over the past decade or so. But when it comes, it snaps your neck. There is no gratuitous scenes, all used to great effect and power.
However, his actions scenes were another miss for me.
“Warriors flowed in complex formations like colored inks swirled in turbulent water. Arrows buzzed like gnats.”
Purple prose is alright when used sparingly. When an author can adopt this style throughout and still manage to keep my attention, that’s great. But flowery descriptions don’t work in tight action.
I like simplicity. I like sharp fights. I want it to be clear in my mind. Barnes didn’t accomplish that.
What I feel his most dividing work is characters.
“You carry such a burden of grief for the lives you could never save, as well as the guilt for being alive when they’re not. You’re murdering yourself from the inside out, and I hate to see you do it.”
Indris sold me in the blurb. I love a good warrior mage, and he delivered. The character was complex, full of honor and duty to his people. He did what was right, what was necessary, sometimes without bloodshed. His entanglement in it all was sad, yet at the same time understandable.
Mari was the opposite. While complex, I don’t shoot that as a compliment. I’ve never liked indecisive characters, and she was the biggest. Not angsty teenage indecision, but general stupidity. I mean, if I had to pick either the man I loved (or thought I loved) who was an honorful man trying to right the wrongs I had helped create, or my father who was an ambitious, crazy old man who killed for the sake of advancement, I know which side would be mine. I didn’t see it as that hard of a decision.
And it takes the whole book for her to choose a side. You could level this as playing a double agent, but I don’t see that. If so, Barnes didn’t do a good job on that field.
Moving into a better light (darkness?) we have the antagonist of the novel, Corajidin, Mari’s father, Indris’s enemy, and the man trying to become ruler of a fallen empire. It is from this perspective that the narrative really shines. Barnes doesn’t imagine a villain; he creates a human being growing insane over time, ruled by his blind ideas.
From this bashing, it may seem that I didn’t like this book. Far from it. We have a well realized world between the pages, beautifully described. I’m a sucker for civilizations that came before. Battle mages are another weakness. Plus, horse soldiers. How cool is that?
Femenestri was by far the best character in this story, an old teacher whose wit quite surpasses her pupil, Indris. She was amazing and so much fun when present.
If you’re looking for something different, something to strike that vein of Eastern Fantasy with a twinge of weird, this is what you need to go with. Barnes has crafted a great debut with plot twists galore, exactly what speculative fiction needs.
“Death was a beginning, in the way all endings were beginnings. Farewell, rather than good-bye.”
*This was given to me as an ARC for my honest review.*