The Stone Knife is the recently released new novel from Grimdark Magazine favorite Anna Stephens (The Godblind Trilogy). It is the first in her new series The Songs of the Drowned and was published in the US in November, 2020. We usually try to review books before they come out, but I got my copy a little late this time, and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tell you about this melancholy but excellent novel.
The Stone Knife takes place in a fantasy version of ancient Central America, which I have to say is a welcome relief from the usual quasi-medieval European fantasy world, and introduces us to the Pecha, an empire on the march, and the Tokob and Yaloh, two nations the Pecha hopes to conquer. The story is rife with conflict and anticipation from start to finish, but where The Stone Knife really cuts deep (yes, I did that) is in its worldbuilding, its characters, and its themes about colonialism and exceptionalism, which should hit home with most Americans, like me, as well as with Brits like the author.
The worldbuilding in The Stone Knife is complex, as original as one can expect from a fantasy novel, and extremely enjoyable. Stephens must have been aware of this when she titled the series The Songs of the Drowned. The empire of the Pecha is the Empire of Songs. Throughout the empire, the people constantly hear some type of song that is transmitted through a special type of stone called, of course, songstone. As they build their empire through conquest, they build pyramids topped with songstone to spread their brainwashing song. Even the Tokob and Yalotlan who travel to Pechacan can’t resist its influence. This presents a problem as ambassadors and refugees travel across the border, as well as the problem the Tokob and Yalotlan will face when the song pyramids are built in their own nations. So, the song is a constant threat throughout the story, which provides great tension to the conflict.
The other element of the series title is the Drowned. The Drowned are the Pecha’s gods. The Pecha call them the Holy Setatmeh. They are also clawed and fanged humanoid monsters who live in the rivers of not only Pechacan but also Tokoban and Yalotlan. This is especially problematic for the Tokob and Yaloh people when they need to fetch drinking water from the rivers like the Swift Water in Tokoban. As if that wasn’t bad enough, during the wet season, the Drowned can get around even easier as the rivers expand and flood their banks. And they are extremely deadly.
One of the Tokob whose job it is to kill the Drowned is Xessa. She has been voluntarily deafened so she cannot hear the song of the Drowned as she approaches them to kill them and protect water fetchers and the Tokob. She is a fearless fighter, who wants not only to kill the Drowned, but ultimately to capture one of the creatures and find out why they kill people. Her husband Toxte as supportive as one could expect of such a venture.
There’s quite a bit of romance in the story. Another important couple are the shaman Tayan and his husband Lilla. Tayan has been chosen by his people, the Tokob, to negotiate with the Pecha to stop their incursion into Tokob and Yaloh lands. His efforts become especially complicated as he starts to get affected by the constant singing of the song in his head.
But the most interesting characters in the book are the purported villains, Xac, who is the Singer, basically the emperor of the Pecha, and his right-hand woman and ambitious lover Enet. They are a complex and terrifying couple, who have no regard for anything except conquest for the Empire of Songs. They want to spread the song by enslaving the Tokob and Yaloh. It is their duty.
Which brings us to the theme that I found most interesting. The Pechaqueh Empire seems very much like the United States’ global empire. They consider themselves to be the most holy people in the world, and they will not debate the subject. They are holy; you are not. In the same way that America brings it’s “democracy” to the uncivilized (despite having civilizations that have endured ten times as long as the US’s) via massive destruction, the Pecha bring their song, their civilization, and their social hierarchy to the inferior Tokob and Yaloh. Though the Tokob and Yaloh are willing to negotiate certain terms to retain their autonomy, the Pecha leaders will not have it. All conquered people must endure a certain duration of enslavement and a period as a dog warrior fighting for conquest, before they can hope to purchase their freedom if they even survive. As often—perhaps always—happens in such one-sided negotiations, diplomacy fails and war ensues.
And that’s about as far as book one of The Songs of the Drowned takes us. Although the story is far from over, and perhaps the ending of the first installment is less than conclusive even for a series novel, it is fascinating journey. It is far more complicated than I can describe here, but at 600+ pages, readers can expect a very deep and engaging read that harkens back to the real doorstopper novels that reward the committed reader with a depth and complexity of characters, relationships, conflicts, and emotions that cannot be achieved in novels and novellas of shorter lengths. So, while The Stone Knife is unabashedly only part of a larger story, it is a very fulfilling read that, when finished, should make readers feel they have come a long way with complex characters they care about.
But is it grimdark? I almost always ask myself this question at the end of reviews because this is, after all, Grimdark Magazine. With The Stone Knife, I think it might be too early to tell. There are definitely villains and heroes here, but in a grimdark sort of way they all think they are right and righteous. There also seem to be a few characters, one being the High Feather (general) Pilos of the Pecha, who could be on the fence, so to speak, caught in a place in the social hierarchy that causes them to act against their own moral judgment. So, I think there is some room to argue about its grimdarkness, but that shouldn’t put off any grimdark readers because overall The Stone Knife is grim as fuck. The mood of the book is relentlessly dismal, uninterrupted by hope or humor. If you like that kind of grimness, then you can’t do better than The Stone Knife. And I expect, by the end of the series, there will be some hopeful contrast to this sorrowful beginning.
Read The Stone Knife by Anna Stephens
Read an extract here.