Stonewiser: The Heart of the Stone
By Dora Machado
(Mermaid Press 2008)
I tend to get quite a few emails offering various books for review, and I usually turn them down. I don't have the time to read all the books that come highly recommended, let alone those I've never heard of before. Yet I was willing to make an exception for Stonewiser, simply because it had an intriguing premise that strayed away from the usual elements of fantasy.
The idea underpinning the novel is that the history and laws of Machado's secondary world have been imbued within stones, and are accessible only by those known as stonewisers. Subsequently, the world - or at least the 'Goodlands' that have not fallen victim to the destructive 'Rot' - is ruled by the 'Guild' - an organisation of stonewisers that distribute justice and teach the history of the world, as told by the stones.
Naturally, things get rather messy when Sariah - the most gifted stonewiser of her generation - enters a forbidden vault beneath the Guild and 'wises' the twin stones that she finds there. Soon she realises that the history that the Guild teaches is false, and that the Guild is corrupt to the very core. The novel then follows Sariah as she embarks on a quest to discover the 'stone truth' and learn the true extent of the Guild's lies and corruption.
It's a fresh idea and one that allows for plenty of twists and revelations. It also serves as a good driver for the plot, giving Sariah reason to fall in with the 'New-Bloods' - enemies of the guild - and enabling Machado to reveal more of her world, such as the 'Rotten Domain' which is afflicted by the Rot.
The novel is told through the single POV of the female stonewiser Sariah, who is well fleshed out and develops nicely over the course of the novel. As the plot progresses Sariah is forced to make increasingly difficult choices and sacrifices, and her developing relationship with one of the New-Bloods complicates things further. Machado really manages to get under the skin of Sariah and reveal exactly what it is that makes her tick, and how her mind works. As the story progresses a number of other characters are added to the mix, most of which are also well developed, such as Kael, the enigmatic New-Blood 'roamer', Malord the maimed wiser and Horatio, the 'Main Shield' who struggles with the horror of his lost youth.
Machado's writing is as competent as her characterisation, being vivid and often poetic. The plot itself is well devised and generally moves along at a good pace. As mentioned above, there are quite a few surprises and while I could - in the latter stages - see where the story was going and how it would end, the impact was not lessened in any way. I was surprised to find that the novel was often a little darker than I expected, and there are one or two quite brutal moments that add a nice (dare I say it) gritty feel, without coming across too heavily. Machado's world also comes across well in her writing.
I do however have a number of reservations. The most significant problem I had while reading the novel was the use of a single POV - Sariah. Perhaps this is just a personal preference, but generally I like a story to be told through the eyes of a number of characters. I couldn't help feeling that if we were able to see the events unfold from the POV of other characters - Kael and Horatio would have been interesting - it would have added a whole different perspective and kept it fresh. Being stuck in the mind of the same character - despite her depth - for 450 pages became a little dull, and it wasn't helped by the fact that certain phrases - the main culprit being 'Meliahs help her' - really started to grate after a while.
While the world came across well, I can't say it particularly intrigued me. I liked the idea of the 'Rot' afflicting the land and the idea of the imbued stones playing such a pivotal role, but otherwise the world seemed largely unremarkable - the usual medieval Europe flavour. I also felt the plot sagged a bit in the middle. The plot rattles along for the first third and builds to a satisfying climax at the end, but just seems to stutter in the middle and the tempo is interrupted.
Overall, Stonewiser: The Heart of the Stone is a good novel, with a fresh premise, intriguing story and a well-developed main character. It is however let down by the narrow perspective, the uneven plot and the world that just didn't quite manage to fire my imagination.