Book Review: Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher
Title: Smoke and Stone
Author: Michael R. Fletcher
Publisher: Self published
Page Count: 511
Genre: Grimdark fantasy
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.
Smoke and Stone is an mesoamerican-inspired fantasy that exudes all the trappings of grimdark in all the right ways. Excellently flawed characters, a brutal social system, and a world of power hungry gods and magic fueled by narcotics and sacrifice—it’s all here.
The story primarily follows two points of view. The first, Akachi: an ambitious sorcerer priest from a wealthy family who has been assigned to the outer, most destitute ring of the city of Bastion, known as the Growers’ ring. Here he is expected to get the discontent Growers to fall back into line, get back to work, and worship the god of his sect once more—by whatever means necessary.
Our second point of view protagonist is Nuru, an illegal Grower street sorcerer, who is hunting for a way out of the Growers’ ring for herself and her street gang. And she plans to use the power of a banished god to do it.
Next to these two protagonists we also have a large ensemble of well-rounded supporting characters. However, one supporting character, Efra, stood out above the rest. As Nuru’s ally and partner in crime, she’s chillingly ruthless, devious, mysterious, highly intelligent, and alarmingly well connected, so much so you can’t help but get the feeling she knows more than she lets on as you read. I’m looking forward to seeing and learning more from her in the next book.
Behind all these characters is a deliciously dark world that hints at an apocalyptic past where humanity’s survivors have been uplifted by the gods to Bastion. Over the course of the book, we also get tantalising glimpses in the political undercurrent and divine power plays that will determine the fate of the city and its inhabitants.
And of course, I cannot let this review go by without mentioning the magic system… holy shiiite. Magic fueled by narcotics. I have not seen anything like it before. Just brilliant.
In true grimdark fashion, death is never far away in Bastion. Just as Nuru and her Grower gang never feel truly safe, and Akachi’s quest to hunt Nuru down pushes him into more position grows ever the more dangerous, readers too are never allowed to feel safe that their favourite characters will see the story through. Instead it’s hold-your-breath all the way to the end to find out who survives.
This write up is quickly turning into a rave, but I do need to temper it with a heavy content warning. This story is R18+ grimdark; it does not shy from the ugly side of humanity. It is up there among the grimmest and darkest of stories I’ve read. There’s graphic gore, along with drug use, sacrifice, casual murder, slavery, starvation, beatings and so on. If you like clean, good versus evil fantasy, this is not the book for you. But if grim and dark is your thing, this is definitely one to check out.
In all, Smoke and Stone is a powerhouse of a grimdark read. Brutal and unswaying, it straps readers in and doesn’t let go until the final page.