Stonewiser: The Call of the Stone is the second volume in Dora Machado’s gripping fantasy, the Stonewiser trilogy. With barely a pause for breath, it takes up the story of its troubled heroine, Sariah, in exile for betraying her masters in the Guild and revealing a truth that no one wants to hear. In a world in which nothing is permanent and everything is threatened by the destructive power of the rot, stones are the one certainty, nigh imperishable objects that can be imprinted with truth.
The Guild’s immense power arises from a monopoly over imprinting and wising (reading) the stones, and power, as we know, corrupts: lies have entered the stones and history has been rewritten to serve the powerful. In book one, The Heart of the Stone, driven by curiosity, a passion for justice and an instinct for truth, Sariah revealed the lies in the stones, damning herself in the process and condemning her world to uncertainty. As The Call of the Stone begins, we find that Sariah has made a home amongst the New Blood, the oppressed inhabitants of the Rotten Domain. Theirs is a toxic landscape corrupted by the rot and contained behind a mammoth wall that stretches from one end of the land to the other. Her revelations have made her few friends on either side of the Wall however and even in her new home she is unwelcome by many: certainties based on lies are more appealing, it would seem, than the uncertainties unleashed by truth.
There’s no loss of pace between The Heart of the Stone and its sequel. Book two opens with Sariah’s capture and imminent execution by her adopted people. Kael, her partner by the blanket, wins her a reprieve, nine months to find a tale that will unite the people. It’s an impossible task and Sariah has been set up to fail. From its opening page the sequel takes off at full tilt and barely loses momentum for its duration. The world we were introduced to in Machado’s debut novel opens onto new vistas and achieves greater complexity and interest, but even as we discover more, we find that it is changing.
A strength of Machado’s fantasy is the realism with which people and situations are handled, although it’s hard to say whether this approach is dictated by a need to drive the plot forward or a theory about life itself. I suspect the latter. Machado achieves a furious forward motion in her writing by refusing to allow her characters to control situations. Their understanding of events, situations and people is almost always incomplete and no matter how careful the planning, events unfold unpredictably.
Or at least, they unfold predictably bad for Sariah! Complexity continually throws a spanner in the works and her mission is fraught with one calamity after another. The author appears to revel in placing her heroine in perilous situations and observing how she extricates herself. It does make for grim reading at times. Machado’s world is populated by real people, many of them unpleasant, and those with power readily abusing it and others.
It’s worth mentioning however that this pessimism is offset by an underlying optimism that good can emerge from even the worst situations.
Although I’ll reserve judgement until the final novel, it’s testament to the author’s commitment to a grim and gritty realism that she appears to refuse to resolve the story’s complexity by resorting to a simplistic idealism. The fanatical beliefs and hatreds of the various peoples, the Bloods, will not be overcome by a mere tale of unity, no matter how true it might be. It’s not blood after all that unites a people, it is belief, and the beliefs of these people cannot easily be reconciled: all of them define themselves by their differences, not their similarities.
For all its magic and wonder, Machado’s fantasy is not escapist, and despite the humour and elements of romance it’s not for the faint-hearted. There’s a commitment to reality in these pages that makes for grim and yet satisfying reading. The novel is not without its flaws – very occasionally the writing lacks clarity and there’s a tendency for American colloquial turns of phrase to slip in amongst a more archaic language (although this perhaps will go unnoticed by our American cousins) – but these pale to insignificance in the scheme of things: ultimately this is intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining fiction.
The Call of the Stone is the second part of Dora Machado’s Stonewiser trilogy. Published by Mermaid Press, it will be available in June 2009.