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Book Name: Black Stone Heart
Author: Michael R. Fletcher
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: March 29, 2020

A broken man, Khraen awakens alone and lost. His stone heart has been shattered, littered across the world. With each piece, he regains some small shard of the man he once was.

He follows the trail, fragment by fragment, remembering his terrible past.

There was a woman.

There was a sword.

There was an end to sorrow.

Khraen walks the obsidian path.

The titular Black Stone Heart of this book is a not a metaphor for a lack of feeling on protagonist Khraen’s part but is instead a literal heart made of obsidian that not only pumps the blood through Khraen’s veins but also drives his quest in search of, literally, himself. It’s a broken heart too. Each shard resides within a magical clone of the same man, and to rebuild his memories and regain his lost self, Khraen must kill his doppelgangers and reincorporate each missing fragment into his body. As Khraen travels across a continent searching for the pieces of his broken heart, he finds the pale-skinned population mostly despises him for his dark skin—a prejudice born from historical fear and cultural differences between magic users in this world. Thus we have a meditation on heart, mind, and body, as well as an exploration of the impact of racism, all within a bloody grimdark tale full of murder and mayhem as well as plenty of humor and—you guessed it—heart.

Our Thoughts

Overall Black Stone Heart was received very well by our judges. We loved how Fletcher explored themes of personal and societal morality and responsibility along with the nature of being—is it our memories or our actions that define us? Most of us really loved the storytelling too. This is a dark tale where the protagonist slides down the slippery slope from “that was bad but under the circumstances it was understandable” to “wow, that was evil,” but we’re able to enjoy the downward spiral because the protagonist is charming, sympathetic, and quite funny. The two female supporting characters were also fun. We loved heroic Shalayn, and we loved to hate the enigmatic Henka. Although a couple team members felt the latter half of Khraen’s quest dragged somewhat, others thought the pacing was breakneck all the way to the end, and we’re all excited to see where Khraen’s journey goes in future volumes.

Selected comments from judges include:

A. M.

One of the things I love in a book is layered and thought-provoking storytelling, and Black Stone Heart has that in spades (or hearts?). The writing was solidly good, sometimes beautifully descriptive, with little moments here and there of pure poetry. I loved the themes of free will and whether it’s our memories or our actions that define us. The opening chapters were riveting and developed the MC in a way that had me rooting for him. 

However, it’s not a perfect book. From about the midpoint, the long journey into darkness (both literally and figuratively) became tiresome, and pushing forward became less a thrill and more of a chore as Khraen’s internal struggles enter broken record territory. The text could have used another careful copyedit to eliminate the typos scattered throughout, and the formatting was also not professional-level, as there were no page breaks between chapters (at least in the edition given to SPFBO judges). 

That said, the narrative redeemed itself with a satisfying final confrontation and reveal, and the epilogue hinted at a journey yet to come that left me anxious for the sequel.

Kartik

This was a brutal, fast-paced, and engrossing story that should not be missed—one of those rare books that will demand your attention from the start and never lets go. 

You will keep thinking “one more page, and then I will sleep.” But that one page turns into many; you discover that the book is over and that it’s 3 AM. You will lie awake thinking about the book and the characters, and possibly be a bit miffed because the sequel is not out yet.

Yes, Black Stone Heart is that kind of book.

There are multiple reasons for it—the express pacing, the writing, the characters, and the moral dilemmas. I am not sure if there is an element of storytelling that the author has not done well. Well, maybe the plot could have been a bit more original and a little less predictable towards the end. But, those two nitpicks will apply only to long-time jaded readers of fantasy like me. The rest of us will find it refreshingly original. 

Khraen is the stand-out character, of course. Khraen is in part an archetype who tries to answer two age-old questions: Why do people end up behaving the way they do—is it nature, or is it nurture? Do people turn out to be good or evil because of their upbringing and environment or is it in their innate character to be either one? Khraen struggles with the moral implications of whatever memories he has. He is not able to comprehend how he turned out to be the way he remembers and is repelled by his actions in his memories. But then, the more people treat him like an outcast, the more anger and resentment he starts to feel. The question remains: knowing what little he does, will he continue down the path which will make him like his memories, or does he have the freedom and choice to be something else in a cruel world? I found this aspect of the story fascinating. Michael Fletcher portrays this brilliantly. We can see how easy it is for someone to start down the slippery slope where violence justifies violence and evil begets evil. Even though Khraen tries hard to be decent, the environment and the action of the system and people makes him lash out.

The second question is, What is the nature of evil? Is a wolf evil for killing rabbits? Is a predator evil for killing and eating its prey? Unfortunately, I didn’t subscribe to the author’s point of view concerning this question. He draws a metaphor between an animal in nature and human beings. Obviously, evil as a concept applies only to thinking beings, who choose to behave in an immoral fashion. So there is no question that a necromancer who has chosen to be one or a demonologist who decides to trade in souls, is evil. But the nuance here is what if they do so to protect someone else? Like I said before, I didn’t find this argument convincing. But the author does a fantastic job of showing how a small evil deed makes it easier to accept a larger one. Khraen is presented with circumstances which force him to choose between evils. 

There are more subtle questions posed here. Memories make a person. But, which memories are the priority and is the order important? Khraen’s character is dealing with all of these existential questions, and it makes him fascinating. Michael Fletcher ensures that Khraen doesn’t become angst-ridden emo but keeps his internal monologue engrossing. The world-building is above average too. It has the usual share of magic and fantasy tropes, but some elements make it unique that I do not want to spoil here. There are shades of The Wheel of Time as well as The Sword of Truth. 

The book is also quite brutal and graphic. So be warned. It is not for the squeamish. A series like The Rakkan Conquest has a similar plot-line, with the protagonist waking up with no memories of their past life. But where that series goes clearly in one direction, Black Stone Heart kept me guessing.

In conclusion, Black Stone Heart is a brilliant grimdark fantasy. I strongly recommend it.

Kerry

The opening paragraph of the prologue certainly resonates through the book; how we always try to justify our actions without thinking of the consequences, and Khraen certainly does that a lot. I love moral ambiguity though, it surrounds us daily, so I relate more to characters in books like this. Henka’s identity became apparent relatively early on, which put me off. She is one dislikable piece of work, but I’m excited to see what happens with her in the sequel. The dystopian backdrop works well, and the destruction of the current world is a great dichotomy to the reconstruction of Khraen’s heart and memories.

Lynn

Khraen’s awakening thousands of years after his death is a raw and wild thing. It’s survival at any cost. The characterizations are a highlight of this author’s books. Fletcher builds a depth of moral dilemma that makes his protagonists and characters unforgettable. The dialogue is outstanding and at times downright humorous amidst the violence. The plot twists and turns. Khraen’s questions are burning and his relentlessness is daunting. His hatred of wizards is inexplicable. He is drawn to a necromancer whose existence he spared, but he doesn’t know why. The reader can’t help but sympathize with his ignorance, but as truths emerge, the more you realize you don’t know who is truly good or evil at all. This is a riveting start to an excellent saga.

– – –

Our judges are A. M. Justice, Julia Kitvaria Sarene, Kartik Narayanan, Kerry Smith, Lynn Kempner, and Mariëlle Ooms-Voges. If you’d like to learn more about us, including our likes and dislikes, you can read about them here.

Any queries should be directed to A. M. Justice via DM (Facebook/Twitter).

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