The SPFBO team are making steady progress in our search for a finalist. To avoid cruelly stretching things out, we’ll be posting (in no particular order) individual reviews for those who don’t make it as and when we eliminate them.

Now, only three books remain as we say farewell to L. Penelope and Song of Blood & Stone.

Right from the start of the contest, the reviewing team identified Song of Blood & Stone as a strong contender. The writing was excellent. The worldbuilding was fascinating. The magic system was well thought out. The real-world issues touched on were compelling. The only question mark, really, lay over the book’s genre. Blood & Stone is a fantasy romance. Would it be able to win over the entire team, not all of whom are romance readers or enjoy strong romantic themes? More importantly, would it convince us that it could win the wider contest, where it would face a whole new set of reviewers with similar doubts?

The answer, as it turned out, was not quite. But damn, was it close.

Song of Blood & Stone begins strongly. Jasminda is the daughter of a Lagrimari man and an Elsiran woman, living alone on the Elsiran side of the border after losing the rest of her family to an accident. The Elsirans are pale-skinned and have no magical ability. The Lagrimari are brown-skinned and possess the power of Earthsong, which can heal wounds and cast illusions (among other things). Jasminda takes after her father and has inherited his magical ability, which means she doesn’t look like anyone else in town, and gets reactions like this:

The front door sang out again, admitting an elderly woman who gasped at the sight of Jasminda.

“Don’t worry, I’m not contagious.” Jasminda crossed her arms as the woman kept her distance all the same, back pressed against the wall as if being confronted by a wild animal and not a nineteen-year-old girl.

Jasminda makes a wonderful protagonist. She’s what I would describe as a proper Strong Female Character, which means she’s not some kind of super-warrior who never cries (because that’s girly, dammit!) but a real, well-rounded, complex woman who is sometimes tough, sometimes scared, sometimes practical, sometimes emotional…basically, she’s a real person. Yay! She’s lonely and resourceful and doing her best in very difficult circumstances. And then she meets Jack.

Jack is the other protagonist of the story, an Elsiran soldier who has been undercover in Lagrimar using Earthsong to disguise him. The Lagrimari are ruled by a dictator who takes most of their power for himself, and many of them are quite naturally rebelling against this. So we have Lagrimar and Elsira at war with each other (though prevented from outright hostility most of the time by a magical barrier between the two countries), and Lagrimar also at war with itself. All good stuff. Jack has been wounded, but has managed to get back to Elsira. Jasminda helps him. Which is when it becomes pretty damn clear these two are going to fall in love, despite the barriers between them:

As she settled next to him, his awareness of her pulsed like an extra sense. She smelled of cool mountain air, pine, and something light and feminine that he couldn’t place. He closed his eyes and inhaled her nearness, allowing it to soothe and calm him.

Yep, Jack is smitten all right. But unlike Jasminda, it’s hard to get much of a handle on him to start with. He remains somewhat opaque until about 30% in, when some of the secrets he’s been keeping are revealed, his layers are peeled back and you realise why he was mysterious before. So although he took some time to grow on me, grow he did.

Once Jasminda and Jack have been thrown together, they help each other to overcome a whole host of challenges. Cruel Lagrimari soldiers. A journey through the mountains. Severe Elsiran prejudice. A visit to the royal court. And through it all, they continue to lust after each other – which is where this book really became divisive within the reviewing team. Because it’s as if there are two plots running side by side. One is all about politics and racism, the tangled history of two countries, and trying to stop a terrible cataclysm. The other is two people longing to be together, thinking constantly about how wonderful/attractive/brave the other is, and inching closer and closer to having sex.

To be fair, this is pretty standard for a fantasy romance. The story is as much about the relationship between the two protagonists as it is the wider plot. And as a reader, you’ll either find that compelling and romantic and sweet…or you’ll start getting just a tiny bit frustrated that the lust keeps slowing down the plot. We were torn on that one. Either the romance is really the point – the coming together of two people despite everything that’s trying to separate them – or it’s a distraction from a solid fantasy story. As far as I can tell, there is no right answer to that question. Your response will depend entirely on what kind of reader you are. And that, my friends, is why all reviews of books everywhere should be taken with a pinch of salt. 🙂

Nevertheless, once Jasminda and Jack have finally made it to the bedroom (at around the halfway mark), the plot begins to pick up while the yearning descriptions take a backseat. Revelations are made, hints converge and the action comes thick and fast. At this point, I think even the most romance-averse doubters would be silenced. The initial promise of the opening is fulfilled, with the real-world parallels – racism, prejudice, our treatment of refugees – being handled deftly. Some of the conversations around these issues have real impact:

“Yes, these refugees”––Pugeros spat the word out like he would a rotten bite of food––“are already straining the Principality’s coffers.” […]

“There is international precedent,” Stevenot said. “We are under no obligation to burden ourselves with their care.” […]

“I’ve seen this camp, and much as I would like to feel sorry for these refugees, I am moved by something less like pity and more like suspicion to see them crossing our borders in such increasing numbers.”

You can’t get much more relevant to our own modern world, really – and yet Blood & Stone never feels preachy or like an ‘issues’ book. It’s simply that, as all good fantasy novels do, it has something to say about humanity. And so the book finishes as strongly as it started, with one or two twists near the end that have a fantastic effect. By this point, those of us who read that far had really grown to love the two main characters and wish them every happiness.

In the end, though, we said goodbye to Blood & Stone for much the same reasons that we said goodbye to Off Leash: of the possible contenders we could put forward from our group, it wasn’t the most likely to win. While the world and characters were engaging, the romance tropes would probably switch off some judges as much as they would turn others on. However, if you enjoy a strong element of romance in your fantasy, and particularly if you are a fan of fantasy romance titles like the Tairen Soul series – in other words, if you’re in the ‘lust enhances the story’ camp rather than the ‘lust slows it down’ camp – we thoroughly recommend this book. It’s polished, heartfelt and deserves your attention.

With many thanks to L. Penelope for submitting her work to this contest.

– – –

We’re now down to three books (from our original 30) in our search for a finalist to move into the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Here are our remaining choices in no particular order:

Paternus by Dyrk Ashton
Ravenmarked by Amy Rose Davis
The Raven by Aderyn Wood


By A.F.E. Smith

loves Hobb, Abercrombie and Lawrence as much as the next fantasy fan, but is on a mission to look past the big-name giants of the genre and discover the equally brilliant books that far fewer people have heard of. (This mission may have been influenced by the fact that she’s an insignificant digital-first author in her own right, but if so, she’ll never admit it.) She has two young children, a full-time job as an editor, and runs on a combination of chocolate and wishful thinking. Her first book, DARKHAVEN, was released in 2015 by Harper Voyager. You can find her on Twitter as @afesmith.

3 thoughts on “Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope – SPFBO Review: And Then There Were Three”
  1. Normally romance-heavy stuff isn’t really my cup of tea, but just from the excerpts you posted, I think it might be worth giving this one a try, even if it didn’t end up as your finalist. I was initially caught by the cover, and now I see the writing seems decent, and that it nearly won over the team? That’s some high praise, right there.

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