I like ARCs Advanced Reader Copies - there is a delicious thrill in getting an early insight into books not yet available to the general public. So I was very grateful to receive an electronic ARC for "The Heart of Stone" by Ben Galley.
Galley is an experienced self-publisher, keen to share his experience with others and to address some of the problems and prejudices that self-published works still face compared to traditionally published. Certainly, as I look over my recent reads there is a growing overlap in quality where the best of self-published works would more than hold their own in comparison with their traditionally published contemporaries - and The Heart of Stone is well within that zone.
The Heart of Stone is a well polished piece with an intriguing central premise. Fantasy-Faction's short story competition this month has a similar theme - with its "Through the Beast's Eye" month where contributors tell the story from the monster's perspective.
Galley has placed Task - the four hundred year old stone golem - at the heart of his story. The last survivor of one of many near-indestructable monsters created by a long dead warlord, Task has been passed from master to master bound to their service and indeed to his own continued existence by the oldest of old magic. But Task was always a different golem - questioning from the moment of his creation. The story follows Task's growth, coming to terms with those centuries of uncertainty, while he slogs North as one side's secret weapon in a grubby civil war in a distant corner of the world.
We also follow other views than Task's in what is a multiple PoV tale. There is in effect a triple prologue (or prelude) where we meet not just Task but the two women with whom his fate and development will be totally entwined. The story is an easy read, that I consumed over a period of weeks of bedtime reading. However, having finished it I went back to re-read preludes 2 and 3, seeking to link the women's histories to how their parts played out in the extended denouement.
Galley's writing - full of deft touches - is one of the book's strengths. They are particularly good at capturing Task's ambivalent attitude towards humans - or skinbags - as he thinks of them and how that develops over the course of the book. Such as when Task reflects that "Watching men crumble under the weight of his gaze was on of his few indulgences." or "The less he touched them, the less he knew. Their ugly lives already seeped into his skin like ink through wet paper."
Then there is the rare moment of sympathy evinced for one of the story's main villains, "For once, Huff wished he could shimmy out from under his father's shadow. Dast was forever draping it over him." There is a pithy economy to Galley's descriptions for example "He was a knife of a man, all angles and crooked lines." There are other lines I noted, too many to mention here, but a joy awaiting other readers' discovery,
Galley's world building impressively conveys a sense of an alien place filled with flora and fauna very different to our own. There are firns (the beasts of burden) and fawls (small camp following animals) that hound and service the army's baggage train, but humans are still reassuringly human, and golems are human shaped. The magic system has nothing quite so prosaic as spells and wizards who cast them - no fireballs burst, no lightning bolts flash over the many battlefields in Tasks' campaign. But magic of a more insidious kind does pervade the story - the magic of minds and of control as Task rails against the chains that bind his will, and others struggle to hide their secrets from those who can surf the thoughts of their fellow men.
Task is rightly the most enthralling of Galley's characters, a complex beast struggling to be something more than a monster and maybe also something more than a man. Other characters capture the reader's attention too. I feared for one when an unexplained nosebleed had me thinking the plague that claimed her family must be poised to strike again. Fearing for a character is always a good indicator of the investment an author has generated from his reader. For other characters, the motivations appear somewhat cruder and simpler. Galley's minor players are driven by lusts for revenge, for glory or even a lust for lust. These drives consistently direct their actions, but lack some of the nuances that might otherwise flesh out the outright villainy of the likes of Huff - a general it is impossible to like.
Galley set out to write a standalone fantasy novel - a rarity in these times of sprawling epics where even the humble trilogy can be looked upon as somewhat under-aspirational. To bring a single geographically localised tale to a satisfying close, Galley draws in the fate of other nations and indeed the rest of the world into the dying gasps of Hartland's self-destructive struggle. Like ships swirling around a maelstrom the outworkings of a civil war threaten to drag other countries down. However, that search to place Task's struggle in some wider world threatening context does stretch the plot. Hartland is gripped by a war between two sides, criss-crossed by factions of the unreliable, the untrustworthy and the frankly unlikeable.
However, Galley's tale is at its best in the moments when we follow the thoughts and words of its remarkable protagonist and whether or not he can throw off the chains of old magic as easily as he can shatter the chains of new iron.