The Good: Characters that do what THEY want, and a plot driven by ‘power’ and political machinations, this a different and refreshing take on Asian-inspired fantasy.
The Bad: A little bit of a slow starter for me, even though there is plenty of action (physical and otherwise), but once this got going, there was no stopping it, and by the time the finale came around I didn’t want it to end.
The Ugly Truth: This ‘magic & muskets’ epic debut pits island kingdoms, northern empires and shady government agencies against one another in a clash of cultures, complete with a wealth of worldbuilding drawn from the author’s historical fiction work.
The Full Review: Firstly, apart from the thanks to Ace and Alexis for sending me a stunning paperback of Gates of Stone to review, I would also like to thank Petrik from Novel Notions for helping me get a copy, and both him and Peter McLean for bringing this novel to my attention.
Secondly, the review…
This is NOT what I expected.
And that’s a good thing.
In 2018 I read a number of Asian-inspired fantasy novels. Some of which were debuts. And I’m glad that non-typical western fantasies are getting traction in publishing, but there can always be more! But of those I read, none of them were the same or even similar; each was as diverse as they deserve to be, and I’m glad to say that this is true with Gates of Stone, too.
So apart from being different from everything else, why else was this NOT what I expected?
Three words: Game of Thrones.
Now, I’m neither a huge fan nor a ‘hater’ of the series but every time I see the words ‘political drama’ in a fantasy book there’s a knee-jerk in my brain that says: ‘Game of Thrones’. And in recent years there seems to be a strange seal of approval as ‘the next big thing’ in fantasy if a book is lauded as akin to GoT. The problem with this is that not only does it set the bar at a certain level (how high is up to individual opinion) but it also hints of various themes and characteristics (e.g. politics, power play, treason, multi POV – oh, and a little innocent incest).
This is not GoT. Sure, within the first few pages there’s pillow talk and politics (aka sex and stabbing – no, not THAT type of stabbing…well, actually, yes, both types of stabbing) and there’s a princess who would give a certain queen a run for her money, but there is so much that makes Gates of Stone stand on its own two feet. And stand proud it should!
Having mentioned the princess, Katerina – the daughter of the emperor, and heir to the Ice-Bear Throne, though denied her birthright by her sex – I should mention the other main characters. Whilst Katerina plots to retake what should be hers, Prince Arjun, heir of a small island kingdom, whose painstaking privilege is outmatched by his arrogance, also sets out to seize what is rightfully his: a sacred sword passed down from his ancestors, stolen from him by a sorcerer. And that sorcerer, Mangku, plans to recover the powerful relics (one of which is the sacred sword), known as the Seven Keys, which locked away the Seven Hells. And on the edges of all these goings on, merchant-agent Farhan enacts a plan to draw rival nations into war, whilst reaping the spoils for himself.
Beyond these major POV characters, the cast includes a veritable ‘tinker tailor soldier spy’ of priests, merchants, mercenaries and government agents. Throw in some addicts, a disgruntled deity and a few cannibals, and it’s a party!
What is brilliant to see, with a cast of this size and variance, is the growth of the characters. Each character arc is part nature and part nurture based on their reactions to the world around them as they discover what lies beyond their individual horizons. Katerina in particular stole the show for me. She’d always been in the limelight, but after a certain scene with a drug-addicted beggar (you will KNOW it when you get to it) I heard her voice loudest despite the mic-drop moment of ‘what did I just read?!?!’
The world building is clearly Indonesian-inspired, and the cultures include Chinese, Japanese and Indian inspiration, as well as Russian! Not the usual line-up, but a fantastic one at that. I’m not surprised that it is in the world building, including the geography, laws of the land and lore of legends that Gates of Stone excels, considering the author’s previous outings in historical fiction, but I am surprised but just how in-depth but accessible it is. I for one didn’t find myself drowning in infodumps, or walls of conversation in which two or more characters remind themselves of everything they already know just for the reader’s benefit, but somehow these potentially highly complex environs were explained with ease and enjoyment.
Harking back to my point on politics here, whilst the plot is driven largely by ‘geopolitics’ (even Mangku’s magical mission by some extent) there isn’t a lot of ‘politicking’. I don’t know about you, but as a reader the LAST thing I want to read about is the first thing I imagine when I think ‘politics’. In the current world of Brexit, as a Brit, the last thing I want to read about (for escapism and enjoyment) is rival parties bickering in a parliament. Thankfully, Gates of Stone isn’t THAT type of politics. Sure, it’s there, but we are also shown the boots-on-the-ground of how this plays out. A good example of this is how Katerina sets her plan in motion, and then not only sees it through, but leads the veritable charge (not literally, but *spoilers*).
What I would say is that at the start of the story, whether it’s because the story really did go against my expectations, or because I didn’t immediately connect with any of the characters, it was a slow burn. A lot happens in the first one hundred pages. A LOT. But it wasn’t until the start of part two, following an epic naval battle, and a ritual which seemingly goes wrong but its oh so right, that the book truly gripped me. And once it had its claws in me, it wouldn’t let go. And before I knew it, the finale was upon me and that too went in the blink of an eye.
In summary, Angus Macallan’s foray into fantasy is off to a fantastic start with Gates of Stone. Whilst it took me a while to get invested, the price of admission was well worth the pay-off. Muskets, magic and mayhem – what more could you want?