Smoke and Stone is the second book I’ve read from Michael R. Fletcher in about as many months, and definitely not the last. I was supposed to read this one last fall when I received a review request, but I’ve been an idiot and didn’t. But hey, now I can read the sequel, Ash and Bones whenever I wish!
Thanks to Michael R. Fletcher for providing me an ebook copy to read in exchange of an honest review.
|Series: City of Sacrifice #1||Genre: grimdark, fantasy|
|Date of Publishing: September 13th 2019||Publisher: Self-Published|
After a cataclysmic war of the gods, the last of humanity huddles in Bastion, a colossal ringed city. Beyond the outermost wall lies endless desert haunted by the souls of all the world’s dead.
Trapped in a rigid caste system, Nuru, a young street sorcerer, lives in the outer ring. She dreams of escape and freedom. When something contacts her from beyond the wall, she risks everything and leaps at the opportunity. Mother Death, a banished god seeking to reclaim her place in Bastion’s patchwork pantheon, has found her way back into the city.
Akachi, born to the wealth and splendour of Bastion’s inner rings, is a priest of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt. A temple-trained sorcerer, he is tasked with bringing peace to the troublesome outer ring. Drawn into a dark and violent world of assassins, gangs, and street sorcerers, he battles the spreading influence of Mother Death in a desperate attempt to save Bastion.
The gods are once again at war.
“Maybe there was no such thing as wrong, just like Efra said. The pounding of the drums, the whip, fear of sacrifice, and the promise of being reborn closer to the gods in the next life. Maybe all these things were a means to an end: Control. Maybe teaching Growers of right and wrong was a way to get them to imprison themselves.”
I’m pretty sure I already used Red Cold River by Breaking Benjamin for some other book, but damn me if it doesn’t fit Smoke and Stone.
Smoke and Stone is the first book in the City of Sacrifice series, as such, it sets the stage for the following books. And boy Fletcher does it splendidly.
The events are told from the POV of two main characters: Akachi and Nuru. Two young people who couldn’t be any more different. Akachi is the son of the High Priest, comes from a wealthy family, he gets all the training a young priest can get to become successful, and seems like to have the blessing of his god, Cloud Serpent. While Nuru, a street sorcerer, lives in the Grower’s Ring – the poorest part of the city of Bastion – has no family (except the 5 friends they form a gang with) or education, everything she has or learns was earned by unlawful ways. You’d think their way would never cross, but as fate has it, they both try to get the upper hand in the brewing war between gods and soon civilians by owning the allegiance of a special person. And so the narcotics fuelled race begins.
One aspect of Smoke and Stone that I liked is that the events take place in a very focused area of the city of Bastion. Yes, the Grower’s Ring is the biggest of them all, but it’s still narrowed down to one particular segment. Where Akachi gets a parish to look over until replacement arrives. And where Nuru and her friends happen to live. We get glimpses of the bigger picture just to remind us that the city and the world are much bigger than it seems. This kind of storytelling as its advantages and disadvantages as it kind of narrows the world-building but it also makes the setting more intimate in a way. What Fletcher managed to do here is to keep our attention focused on the characters’ lives but also give us a good sense of the city and its citizens.
I probably would have liked if the world-building went a touch deeper, especially concerning the pantheon and the different kinds of powers priests and street sorcerers can possess, but I’m sure the later books will do that. That being said, I liked the magic system, if you can call that. I don’t think I’ve read a book where people had to use narcotics to be able to perform their powers. That was cool.
Another interesting aspect of Smoke and Stone to me was the clash of views. As I mentioned, the two main characters, Akachi and Nuru have completely different backgrounds, which leads to completely different world views in turn. It was quite fascinating (and blood boiling) to read how Akachi thought of the Growers or Dirts as others call them. How completely brainwashed people are by a religious book and centuries of grooming by their ancestors. How easily they are disregarded and treated as little more than animals just because of their lower social status. It was not easy to read but it was written very, very well.
“Culture, like religion, depends on the indoctrination of children before they are able to question or think for themselves. It is critical that the formative years of a Grower’s life be spent in an environment controlled by the church.”
– The Book of Bastion
At first, I sympathized with Akachi – he was this young priestling, trying to prove himself and doing good. Then he’d become this gray character in my eyes – he had good intentions but maybe not the right decisions. He chose to be blind about the world around himself and dedicate himself to his god and the purpose he visioned for himself. I had a similar process with Nuru too. I started out with liking her, then got a bit frustrated with her. Looking at things from her POV though, she also had good intentions – saving her friends, trying to have a better life. Ultimately I failed to really connect with either of them which is pretty much the only criticism I can think of. But in Fletcher‘s defense, they are both very complex characters, neither of them easily labeled into “good” or “evil” and I like that.
“I know when things are right and wrong for me,” continued Efra. “But you know when things are right and wrong. It’s funny, because they’re just ideas. Right and wrong aren’t real. They don’t exist without someone to decide which is which.”
Since we are talking about a Fletcher book here, you can be sure it’s on the grim side of the fantasy spectrum. And as such, it comes with a good dose of gore and blood, and basically no one is safe to survive the book. Meaning the characters. Not the readers. You are safe to read it, don’t worry. As safe as you can be with a Fletcher book anyway. Um, where I was going?
In all seriousness. Smoke and Stone is not a book I’d describe as filled with action to the brim. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of that, but the focus is more on the characters rather than actions. And it still manages to be a fast-paced read. I could hardly put it down. Not least because of Fletcher‘s writing style which just clicks with me so well.
Smoke and Stone is the tale of what happens when mortals are forced to fight the gods’ war while blood flows through the streets as smoke fills the lungs of Akachi and Nuru. Fletcher‘s world yet again is relentlessly brutal and dread-filled. And yet, his writing is like a drug you keep wanting more and more of. Give me the next dose!