The Garden of Stones review

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mark T. Barnes presents his first full length novel, The Garden of Stones, the first book of the Echoes of Empire series, a planned trilogy.  The Australian author wrote short fiction before his book got pick off by 47North.  The follow-up, The Obsidian Heart, will be released this month and the final volume of the trilogy, The Pillars of Sand, will be out in May 2014.
An uneasy peace has existed since the fall of the Awakened Empire centuries ago. Now the hybrid Avān share the land with the people they once conquered: the star-born humans; the spectral, undead Nomads; and what remains of the Elemental Masters. 
With the Empress-in-Shadows an estranged ghost, it is the ancient dynasties of the Great Houses and the Hundred Families that rule. But now civil war threatens to draw all of Shrīan into a vicious struggle sparked by one man’s lust for power, and his drive to cheat death. 
Visions have foretold that Corajidin, dying ruler of House Erebus, will not only survive, but rise to rule his people. The wily nobleman seeks to make his destiny certain—by plundering the ruins of his civilization’s past for the arcane science needed to ensure his survival, and by mercilessly eliminating his rivals. But mercenary warrior-mage Indris, scion of the rival House Näsarat, stands most powerfully in the usurper’s bloody path. For it is Indris who reluctantly accepts the task of finding a missing man, the only one able to steer the teetering nation towards peace.
The Garden of Stones is the beginning of a trilogy with much ambition, of seemingly Epic scope but focusing on a power struggle between two factions.  Some have compared this first opus with no other than The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson.  This comparison appears to be accurate to me solely on the facts that the story begins right into the midst of a battle and city occupation (a mid-plot start) and that the world created by Mark is extensive, intricate and rich in history and diversity. Even if Barnes has an interesting prose, I do not believe that he has the talent of Erikson in term of storytelling, the handling of a plethora of characters, the exploration of various human psyches or even humor.

That being said, the novel suffers from its ambition, being lost sometimes in a complex fabric of a world or in the political web of intrigue and power for too long. The social structure is a well-thought fabrication but it takes a great chunk of the story to establish.  The next book will hopefully take profit from this as the table is now set.  Much lore still need development but with the concept of awakening clear enough (simply put, the process by which a monarch is bonded with the consciousness and spirit of Īa, his ancestors), Mark was able to create a truly original setting. Nonetheless, that setting is punctuated with many different races, titles, religious and magic related concepts and it takes a long time to shake the feeling of being lost in terminology.

The principal characters spend most of their time extrapolating or debating on the subject of rulership, making the narration sometimes dull. Some action spice things up from time to time and certain ploys change the power balance and create situations where the characters can show up some interesting skills. The range of these skills varies a lot with each races and the author usually spend some time to extend the description and immersion of his world. I felt that the story was more often than not largely fixated on the world but eventually the protagonists emerged as the focal point of Barnes slow going, sometimes dense but accomplished in other areas, writing.

Three points of view are used to explore the world of Īa. Indris is a daimahjin, a mercenary warrior-mage. He's the prodigal son, a mighty figure who represents many ideals and was groomed by the best.  His situation was altered severely when he lost the love of his life, which felt a bit cliché, and he's now at the head of a company of mercenary put to the use of the good as much as he's concerned. We only glimpse some of his skills (base on disentropy) and his companions look like compelling sidekicks but weren't offered much opportunity to shine. He could become a bad-ass character though.

Corajidin is the head of the House of Erebus and he's ready to go to extremes, to break any law of his people to keep his sanity and health and recover his awakened memories.  Even if we can better understand his motivations, he's still clearly the villain of the story, focusing on his own agenda and fueled by prophecy. However, I'm glad that the author chose to go with this point of view.  Corajidin adds a perspective that gives meaning to all the details about the Houses, leaders, races and political structure. If only he could be less ruminative...

Mariam (or Mari more often than not) is the daughter of Corajidin and the Knight-Colonel of the Feyassin, the bodyguards of the Asrahn of Shrian, the Avan ruler. She was the less compelling of the protagonists for me.  I think she should have been more consistent with her choices even if the events and her feelings are against her in this aspect.  She's more of a pawn than a player, which is normal for some characters, but her storyline felt more detached.

In the end, I liked The Garden of Stones enough to pick up the following book with reasonable hopes. I also think that it ought to have more press, it merits greater attention.  The extensive integration of Fantasy elements almost made the book unravel but I think that the author will be able to use that as an asset in the next novel.

Technically, I really like the 47North edition cover of the book, the work of Stephan Martiniere.  The paperback edition of the book stands at 506 pages and a much needed cast of characters and glossary of terms and cultures is included.  The maps of Southeastern Īa and specifically Shrian are also present.

The Garden of Stones review rating :

World building
Magic system 

Overall (not an average)


Chris said...

Hmm, that's a shame. I was quite looking forward to this one. I'll still pick it up though since the magic sounds interesting.

Customer recommendations for Alaska Real Estate website said...

This was one of those books I found difficult to put down and one that, despite it's 500 pages, I wished was twice as long. I look forward eagerly to the next installment. If you like world-building and epic fantasy and alien cultures with some Steampunk-like contraptions thrown in, pick up a copy of The Garden of Stones. You won't be disappointed.

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