The Stone Knife
My First review and first book of 2021, and what a book it was. Anna Stephens was an author I found with no prior knowledge, a rare look at paperbacks when Waterstones don’t have any new hardbacks and I was so impressed, the next two books were eagerly devoured and when I heard of Anna’s new series this was an instant buy. I’m just sad it had to wait on the shelf so long before I could read it.
The Stone Knife, book one of The Songs of the Drowned, is set in a new world inspired by Mayan/Aztec culture. The Story revolves around the Tokob and Yalotlan tribes who desperately cling to their very survival, fighting a war on two fronts. The first, the unstoppable Pechaqueh who march to the beat of their blessed song magic, who are bent on ruling the whole region of Ixachipan and bringing back their World Spirit to the land of the living. The second, terrifying monsters who dwell in any water source, using their deadly siren song to lure in anyone who steps to close so they can gorge on their flesh.
Anna uses seven characters to bring us this narrative, and this normally isn’t something I would enjoy. Being the simple man I am I personally prefer single character narratives, I get hooked into who I like and end up feeling animosity to the characters I don’t. However, Stephens does something I find exceedingly rare which is writing seven unique and incredible characters that I loved and didn’t want to be parted from. This was a real game changer for me because ending a chapter didn’t give me that feeling of sadness that I think most people can relate to, realising they must wait for their favourites chapter to come back around (Wheel of time is a perfect example of this for me, sadly). There also isn’t a clear main character in my opinion, which I think is a strange one, every person we read the perspective of feels important and necessary which is something I really enjoyed.
Xessa is the first character we meet (Kinda?), across her opening chapters she comes across as who we would guess as the heroine of our story, strong and unbreakable, fearless and fierce. This would make her share the same story arc as most fantasy novels, what Anna does instead however is makes this character human, very human. We get to see her flaws, her weaknesses and her fears and her fight through these emotions, and not in the same way we see the hero struggle in most books or films (Such as Superman’s constant struggle with just how strong and manly he is). Anna gave us a character we thought would be the hero and went “no” and instead we got someone just holding on like everyone else and the immersion this brings to the story is incredible. This is something that flowed over into every other character and something incredibly enjoyable. Plot protection is real, but in this book I was ready for any of these characters to die at a moments notice. If it isn’t clear, the reason I adored this book so much is down to Anna’s amazing ability to write the people that bring us through this story. Not a single conversation in this book cold or robotic, the humanity and connection you felt to these characters was solidified with an almost perfect writing of emotions, touches between characters were something you could imagine seeing, were natural, not forced, and this is something I think the best authors can struggle with. This was also a massive bonus when we got to a sex scene that wasn’t cringey, overextended or unnecessary. It’s a real pleasure and I think a rarity to find a fantasy author who can write characters as relatable as Anna Stephens can.
Anna’s character building was the star of this book for me, drawing me in a way that most books don’t manage, but nowhere else did I find anything lacking. We had a fleshed-out world that fell into place as the story was told, knowledge was given very naturally as it was needed, I didn’t have to go back and reread in case I had missed a key part of the story. It also kept a strong mystery to the book as we didn’t have any solid information to go off from the beginning, the song even towards the end of the book is an unknown, there’s extraordinarily little we know about the Drowned because the characters don’t have that knowledge, we find out with them and again that’s another detail that real immerses us in this story and world.
I like a book with a lot of action and if you’ve read the Godblind trilogy then you Anna delivers on this, combat was fluid, fast and natural, exciting to read about and had you tense when it happened. She also strongly came back with her lack of fear of the gore and gruesome, bringing that heavy grimdark feeling to the story as sometimes you want to read with your hands over your eyes just so you don’t see what’s happening. I read another review about how a reader felt nothing happened, about how they felt like there wasn’t a “oh shit” moment and if you can honestly tell me that’s true than I think we were reading different books. First books in trilogies are normally the slowest ones, we get the world building and the character introduction and then we will get some story points that drive on what will happen over the rest of the series. There’s a chapter halfway through the book that had me gripped in a way I cannot remember very often (When you get to it you will know what I mean) and after that Anna didn’t let go, the rest of the book was nonstop, our end set piece being incredibly tense and entertaining to read. I would also like to point out I’m normally real good at guessing what’s going to happen in a book, were the story will take us next, Anna threw me all over the place and I didn’t have a damn clue what was going to happen, every time I had a grip on the story it would be a “Nah mate, think again”.
This book did remind me quite heavily of Anna’s previous Godblind trilogy. I mean that should be enough to sell it, who needs to write a review hey? We have a completely new setting but something that resembled the same story. Anna’s previous story heavily relied on a lot of what we find in The Stone Knife, Religion and belief continue to be a massive factor in her story telling, but I really believe we see a massive growth in her writing and her talent shines through to new levels. If you loved Godblind you will love this too (I bet money on it).
So, to round out it, tl; dr – This is an excellent first book in Anna Stephens newest series, amazing characters, and a riveting world. I’m so so excited to see what happens in the next one, it will be at the top of my upcoming list so please let’s not wait too long.
Thanks for reading.