Sunday, 11 May 2014

Book Review: 'The Garden of Stones' by Mark T Barnes

The Good: An truly epic debut that raises the newcomers’ bar for world building and beatific writing, a complex and dynamic storyline and empathic characters who drive their own stories as well as the main plot.
The Bad: At times heavy on the purple prose which can detract from the pace, and the lull following the high-octane opening was a little jarring.
The Ugly Truth: Puts the ‘epic’ into ‘epic fantasy’ – ‘The Garden of Stones’ is a hugely impressive novel, all the more so as it’s Mark T Barnes’ debut. Every sentence, paragraph, page and chapter is masterfully crafted, breathing life into the truly original world and giving it a depth of ages and realism that takes it from ‘good’ and shoots it right into the ‘great’.
For Those That Like: Sprawling worlds set within rich tomes of history, bloody wars and even bloodier political battles, high and epic fantasy backdrops, deep and troubled characters. For fans of Steven Erikson, Brandon Sanderson, and Ursula Le Guin.
The future holds only death for Corajidin – that is until prophecy decrees he’ll rise to rule his people.

The key to his survival lives in the past – to secure his tomorrow he must connect to his ancestors.

Between now and then, he would plunge the Great Houses and the Hundred Families into civil war, assassinate the rulers of Shrian, desecrate the history and memory of a city swallowed by time, and risk all out conflict with the other nations including the humans.

But one man stands before Corajidin and his destiny – Amonindris. And he has taken his stand today.

Mark T Barnes’ debut ‘The Garden of Stones’ is as rich and as deep as the world and history it is set in. Published by Amazon’s own 47North, the novel stands shoulder to shoulder with other releases from larger presses and publishing houses, whilst standing aside not only in terms of origin but also execution and originality. Combining epic storytelling seen in fireside tales and the wealth of information from a fantasy-styled encyclopaedia, Barnes paints a masterpiece in worldbuilding and wordsmithing.

‘The Garden of Stones’ tells the story of Corajidin, the dying ruler of house Erebus, as he plots and schemes to usurp the rulers of Shrian, and in doing so secure not only his personal and family destiny, but also his survival. Standing against him is warrior-poet Anomandaris, an infamous warrior and sorcerer of renown.

The tale is a good one, and set within the backdrop of rich history, I for one felt that every development in the plot was leading to ‘something bigger’. The characters’ and their decisions drive the central plot, and whilst each have their own individual stories to follow, I felt more in-tune with the overarching tale.

‘The Garden of Stones’ is populated with a wide array of exotic characters, from Angoth witches to lion-men Tau-se, Elementals to souls inhabiting mannequin vessels.

Amonindris is the hero of the tale. He’s a tragic case, having lost his wife, and to me seemingly having lost his greater purpose in life, we as the readers are treated to his philosophies and thoughts, as well as his sorcerous and martial moments of general badassery. Like other reviews, I drew parallels to Steven Erikson’s Anomander Rake, which is first and foremost down to the primary similarities in name and characterisation, but that isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy reading him. Quite the contrary in fact – whilst Amonindris (mostly referred to as Indris) is a ‘think first act later’ type, this makes for further opportunity for the reader to uncover the stunning backdrop of Shrian and the world around the character.

Corajidin is the ‘bad guy’ of the tale – though he doesn’t quite see it that way. He’s dying, and without knowledge of the Awakening – a ritual by which he can connect with his ancestors and the world of Ia – he’s as good as dead already. Blinded by his own mortality, ambition, and love for his family, Corajidin sets out to kidnap the ruler of Shrian to force from him the knowledge of the Awakening, to not only secure his survival, but also his seat of power. Corajidin is one of the most enjoyable ‘villains’ that I have read in a long time, adding the perfect balance of perspective to the tale.

The last major character that I’d like to mention is Mariam, Corajidin’s daughter, and knight colonel of the Feyassin. Torn between love of her father, and loyalty of her duty, Mariam’s decisions shape much of the events in the story. She’s headstrong and heart-strong, feisty but not fearless – making for one of the best female characters in recent fantasy.
Setting & World Building

The land of Shrian is presented as a blend of the Orient and Mediterranean, shaken into a cocktail with fantasy flavours. Multiple humanoid and non-humanoid races, airships and dragons, a bestiary of critters, and a magic system based on algorithms and equations – ‘The Garden of Stones’ has pretty much got it all.
Style & Craftsmanship

As the reader, we’re dropped into the middle of the plot right from the get-go. As an avid fan of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, I’m no stranger to this approach, but I think in this case the execution  stumbled somewhat. As the opening comes to a close, just as we’re getting to grips with what’s going on, the pace falls away and we’re given time to question and think – when really we should continue to be dragged along. Needless to say, one the pieces are set out on the board the plot does move along at a sufficient pace, and I’m looking forward to how this develops in book two.

Barnes explores the deeper thoughts and morals of each of the characters, but at times this detracted from the pace on a chapter by chapter base. I mentioned above that the plot does achieve sufficient pace once it gets going, but several chapters dropped off the march at times, turning into a few pages of hard slog before it picked up again.

With such fantastical fantasy settings, the temptation to divulge into lengths of purple prose is ever present, and ‘The Garden of Stones’ falls victim to this on more than one occasion. Whilst I’m not keen on reams and reams of paper describing the eggshell blue horizon speckled with clouds and a fat sizzling yolk of a sun, I have to admit that the descriptions were eloquently beatific, and did add to the overall depth of the world.
Final Thoughts

‘The Garden of Stones’ is an epic start to what I think will turn out to be an epic saga. It really does have it all, and whilst it might not be for everyone at first glance, it really does have something for everyone. Now that the scene is set and the characters are in play, I for one am looking forward to seeing how the different sides come together and seek to win in this game of ever rising stakes.

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