Tori Tecken pours a lifetime’s love of fantasy into The Blood Stones, the masterfully written first volume of her new dark epic fantasy series, Legends of the Bruhai.
The novel opens with Gehrin, a young boy who, against his father’s wishes, witnesses the execution of a man sentenced to death for murder of the prince. The condemned man is officially nameless, a traitor meant to be forgotten in the annals of history. However, the piercing gaze of the dying man leaves an undying impression on Gehrin.
Upon returning home, Gehrin is chastised by his father, a government counselor:
“A traitor must leave the earth nameless, forgotten. Yet now you will remember him.”
His dreams are haunted by the specter of the dying man, and Gehrin is abducted under the cover of night, taken to a mysterious school of boys who seem to have lost their identities. Gehrin struggles to maintain his own identity in an environment that wishes to wash it away.
I was particularly touched by Tori Tecken’s descriptions of young Gehrin, who feels small and wants to disappear in the face of such an imposing evil, but who also recognizes that he must make himself big to face the challenges ahead:
“In the darkness of the little box bumping along some unknown road, Gehrin had never felt more like a small boy. Tears squeezed out of his eyes and dripped down his cheeks. He impatiently tried to sweep them away, but his bound hands bumped against his still tender face, and he winced. He choked back a sob, the fear and the slow torture of the lurching movements driving him further away from his determination to stay strong.”
Meanwhile, in the neighboring tribal lands, we are introduced to the second lead protagonist, Syndri, the daughter of a chieftain who lives in a seemingly unending cycle of violence, killing to bring honor to her people. Syndri’s plotline is full of intense action and political manipulation that seems destined to intersect with Gehrin’s story. The latter half of The Blood Stones is full of action, and Tori Tecken has writing action scenes down to an artform.
The Blood Stones is brilliantly plotted across both storylines, with perfect pacing and several unexpected twists that I did not see coming. Tori Tecken introduces elements of worldbuilding in a very natural fashion without any awkward info dumps that sometimes mar epic fantasy. She succeeds in building a complex world without ever making the reader feel overwhelmed or confused.
The Blood Stones is light on magical elements with a primary emphasis on character development. Beyond Gehrin and Syndri, I also enjoyed the cast of secondary characters, especially Gehrin’s older brother, Xario, who is a more archetypal hero figure but still struggles to meet the expectations set on him:
“But being almost a man was the same as still being mostly a child.”
Tori Tecken writes like a seasoned veteran in epic fantasy, hooking me from the first page. Her writing is compulsively readable and polished to perfection. Tecken has a knack for writing the perfect ending to each chapter, making it virtually impossible to set the book down. In a delightful nod to classic epic fantasy, Tecken also gets bonus points for the mouthwatering descriptions of food:
“The tangy lemon scent wafted between them. Gehrin inhaled a deep whiff of the kiji before biting into the soft, chewy rice cake. Mint and jasmine swirled together on his tongue, familiar and comforting.”
I hope someday there will be a companion cookbook.
Tecken also excels in her realistic depictions of friendship among the young cast of characters against the backdrop of a very dark world. In this regard, The Blood Stones reminds me of Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor trilogy, especially its first volume, Red Sister. Tecken also invokes a Lawrencian level of eloquence and accessibility in her approach to storytelling.
As in Tecken’s recently published young adult fantasy, Phased, The Blood Stones excels in its portrayal of mental health struggles, especially related to issues of identity. The Blood Stones also explores themes of memory in a land of forgetting.
The Blood Stones is epic fantasy par excellence, Tori Tecken’s love letter to the genre and a tour de force of worldbuilding and character development that will capture your imagination from the first page and keep you guessing till the very end.