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The Stone Knife

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The Stone Knife by Anna Stephens
Review by malrubius
The Stone Knife is the recently released new novel from Grimdark Magazine favorite Anna Stephens (The Godblind Trilogy). It is the first in her new series The Songs of the Drowned and was published in the US in November, 2020. We usually try to review books before they come out, but I got my copy a little late this time, and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tell you about this melancholy but excellent novel. 
The Stone Knife takes place in a fantasy version of ancient Central America, which I have to say is a welcome relief from the usual quasi-medieval European fantasy world, and introduces us to the Pecha, an empire on the march, and the Tokob and Yaloh, two nations the Pecha hopes to conquer.  The story is rife with conflict and anticipation from start to finish, but where The Stone Knife really cuts deep (yes, I did that) is in its worldbuilding, its characters, and its themes about colonialism and exceptionalism, which should hit home with most Americans, like me, as well as with Brits like the author.
The worldbuilding in The Stone Knife is complex, as original as one can expect from a fantasy novel, and extremely enjoyable. Stephens must have been aware of this when she titled the series The Songs of the Drowned. The empire of the Pecha is the Empire of Songs. Throughout the empire, the people constantly hear some type of song that is transmitted through a special type of stone called, of course, songstone. As they build their empire through conquest, they build pyramids topped with songstone to spread their brainwashing song. Even the Tokob and Yalotlan who travel to Pechacan can’t resist its influence. This presents a problem as ambassadors and refugees travel across the border, as well as the problem the Tokob and Yalotlan will face when the song pyramids are built in their own nations. So, the song is a constant threat throughout the story, which provides great tension to the conflict. 
The other element of the series title is the Drowned. The Drowned are the Pecha’s gods. The Pecha call them the Holy Setatmeh. They are also clawed and fanged humanoid monsters who live in the rivers of not only Pechacan but also Tokoban and Yalotlan. This is especially problematic for the Tokob and Yaloh people when they need to fetch drinking water from the rivers like the Swift Water in Tokoban. As if that wasn’t bad enough, during the wet season, the Drowned can get around even easier as the rivers expand and flood their banks. And they are extremely deadly. 
One of the Tokob whose job it is to kill the Drowned is Xessa. She has been voluntarily deafened so she cannot hear the song of the Drowned as she approaches them to kill them and protect water fetchers and the Tokob. She is a fearless fighter, who wants not only to kill the Drowned, but ultimately to capture one of the creatures and find out why they kill people. Her husband Toxte as supportive as one could expect of such a venture. 
There’s quite a bit of romance in the story. Another important couple are the shaman Tayan and his husband Lilla. Tayan has been chosen by his people, the Tokob, to negotiate with the Pecha to stop their incursion into Tokob and Yaloh lands. His efforts become especially complicated as he starts to get affected by the constant singing of the song in his head.
But the most interesting characters in the book are the purported villains, Xac, who is the Singer, basically the emperor of the Pecha, and his right-hand woman and ambitious lover Enet. They are a complex and terrifying couple, who have no regard for anything except conquest for the Empire of Songs.  They want to spread the song by enslaving the Tokob and Yaloh. It is their duty.
Which brings us to the theme that I found most interesting. The Pechaqueh Empire seems very much like the United States’ global empire. They consider themselves to be the most holy people in the world, and they will not debate the subject. They are holy; you are not. In the same way that America brings it’s “democracy” to the uncivilized (despite having civilizations that have endured ten times as long as the US’s) via massive destruction, the Pecha bring their song, their civilization, and their social hierarchy to the inferior Tokob and Yaloh. Though the Tokob and Yaloh are willing to negotiate certain terms to retain their autonomy, the Pecha leaders will not have it. All conquered people must endure a certain duration of enslavement and a period as a dog warrior fighting for conquest, before they can hope to purchase their freedom if they even survive. As often—perhaps always—happens in such one-sided negotiations, diplomacy fails and war ensues. 
And that’s about as far as book one of The Songs of the Drowned takes us. Although the story is far from over, and perhaps the ending of the first installment is less than conclusive even for a series novel, it is fascinating journey. It is far more complicated than I can describe here, but at 600+ pages, readers can expect a very deep and engaging read that harkens back to the real doorstopper novels that reward the committed reader with a depth and complexity of characters, relationships, conflicts, and emotions that cannot be achieved in novels and novellas of shorter lengths. So, while The Stone Knife is unabashedly only part of a larger story, it is a very fulfilling read that, when finished, should make readers feel they have come a long way with complex characters they care about. 
But is it grimdark? I almost always ask myself this question at the end of reviews because this is, after all, Grimdark Magazine. With The Stone Knife, I think it might be too early to tell. There are definitely villains and heroes here, but in a grimdark sort of way they all think they are right and righteous. There also seem to be a few characters, one being the High Feather (general) Pilos of the Pecha, who could be on the fence, so to speak, caught in a place in the social hierarchy that causes them to act against their own moral judgment. So, I think there is some room to argue about its grimdarkness, but that shouldn’t put off any grimdark readers because overall The Stone Knife is grim as fuck. The mood of the book is relentlessly dismal, uninterrupted by hope or humor. If you like that kind of grimness, then you can’t do better than The Stone Knife. And I expect, by the end of the series, there will be some hopeful contrast to this sorrowful beginning. 

Appears in Grimdark Magazine #25 (January 15, 2020) and will be on social media shortly.
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The characters in The Stone Knife are fantastic - I wanted nothing more than to dive into this world and get to know them more. I also loved the idea of The Drowned, and think they are some of my favourite monsters in any book.

Unfortunately, the overall story wasn't for me. It is very dark, and more graphic than I like. The pacing also felt very slow, and I found it surprisingly difficult to remain engaged enough to finish.

A good book, I think - just not the book for me.

I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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The Stone Knife was a compelling read in a richly imagined world with an eclectic cast of characters who, in the main, were multi-layered and very gripping. Anna Stephens introduces us to a world at war, a proud people fighting against a seemingly undefeatable invader. It is shocking and dramatic from minute one and the pace and horror of war never really lets up.

Of course we must talk about the Drowned - I don't think I've ever read such a brilliantly imagined monster race, or one so terrifying. And yet the different ways they are regarded - one side thinks their gods, the other thinks they're monsters - really hammers home the incredible worldbuilding of the story. I feel as if we barely scratch the surface of the world despite so much happening and so much being revealed. That's an incredible skill and I'm really struggling to think of recent books where the world is so well developed. Stephens creates a place that is undeniably fantasy and yet infuses it with so much humanity that you can't help but draw parallels to our world. 

That really is emphasised by the cast of characters. One side are literal slave owners and yet most are undeniably human, rather than evil. The Empire is fuelled by religious belief and the idea that their way is best. They are invaders and the Tolkob are defenders, desperately trying to hold onto their lands. They are a noble people, one that I definitely found myself favouring over others. And yet, they themselves admit at the start of the book that they could have stopped the Empire sooner. And I found a few of their comments on refugees and those fleeing the Empire pretty distasteful. In the end, it comes down to a kind of nationalism, of trying to save and better your own people, Stephens really emphasises this well. 

However, I have to say that characters like Xessa, Tayan, Lilla and Toxte really tugged on my heartstrings. Their relationships were so touching and watching their transformations was incredibly rewarding. Amidst the carnage of the rest of the book, it was those quiet moments that drew a smile from me. Of course the real star was Ossa. Dogs are the best and I think Stephens uses them better than anyone else. If we're not counting wolves from a certain assassin series...

With that out of the way, we have to examine the Empire. Such a destructive, self-righteous people whose devotion to their religion allows them to justify the massacre and enslavement of the rest of the continent. I could devote an essay to the Empire and so, for brevity, I will just say it exemplifies the worst of religion. Of faith. When you decide that your belief is superior and so must be forcibly pushed onto everyone else. Some of the Empire's characters are likeable or have redeeming qualities and yet they treat slaves as their right and their emphasis on blood and purity is gross.

I know nothing about Central American history and maybe there's a parallel but I definitely got Nazi Germany vibes from the Empire. The belief in the Singer as this messianic figure who can do no wrong. The 'kind' sacrificing of the weak and disabled and the belief in purity. They are a horrible people in truth and yet there is an honour amid the Melody, for example, that you cannot help but appreciate. 

It's funny. When I started this review I intended it to be a short one with a few comments mostly praising the book. Because it really deserves it. It's probably my last book of the year and it's definitely the most immersive, otherworldly thing I've read this year. It's just so different. So fresh. Unique. And the story itself is multi-layered, winding and completely unpredictable. 

Anna Stephens has created a world that will haunt you. That will leave you staring at the ceiling at 3am thinking about. The Stone Knife is dark, thrilling, even horrifying at times. And it is bloody brilliant.

Five stars.
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The Stone Knife is a visceral and epic tale of Empire, that is set in an original world that tells a tale of heroism, love, betrayal and resistance.

The story takes place in the forest land of Ixachipan and revolves around the people of Tokoban and the Yolotlan and their struggle to remain free from being enslaved by the Pechacan, The Empire of song. 

For Generations, the Pechecan have slowly been absorbing every free tribe, enslaving the people that they conquer and expanding the influence of their magic, the song. A hypnotic magic that turns the people into subservient drones, all for the good of the Empire.

However, whilst the Tokoban and Yolotlan attempt to maintain their freedom, other horrors are attacking the people of these tribes in the form of The Drowned. A two legged  amphibious predator that live in the rivers, preying on those who get too close to the water.

Stephens tells the story form the point of view of about seven characters that are from both sides, and they are fully realised characters that you relate to immediately, even though you do not like some of them. The standout character for me was the despicable and devious Enet whose lust for power rivals that of Lady Macbeth. There is no depth that she will not go to in order to cement her status, and the levels of depravity that she stoops to is truly horrifying. However, there are others, Xessa the Eja who protects the land of the Tocoban from the voracious Drowned. 

Xessa is a really interesting character. It has to be mentioned that Xessa is deaf. However, Anna Stephens writes her with such depth that her deafness is not the focus of her character. In fact, her deafness is not a disability but an advantage in her role as protector as The Drowned who hunt by using a hypnotic song that mesmerizes their prey so that they can feast on their flesh. 

The other characters are equally as intriguing, such as Tayan and his husband Lilla, and Pelos, a military leader of the Pechocan.

The world that the story takes place in is refreshing in so many ways. For instance, same sex marriage is a norm in this world and the intricate jungles of Ixachipan are so intricately woven into the story that the environment becomes a character in its own right. Every change in temperature and climate is palpable and impacts on the story in some way.

The Drowned are fascinating aspects of the story and  highlight the differing world views of the two nations. Whereas the Empire of Song sees them as living gods, the Holy Setatme. The free peoples of Tokoban see them as monsters who hunt them mercilessly.

One of the things that I found to be particularly noteworthy was her depiction of the Empire of Songs and the song itself. This was something that blew me away. The Empire seems to comprise of a hive mind and when people are under the influence of the song, they are governed by the Singer and as one they feel the emotions of what he is experiencing. 

The Singer is a truly monstrous character even before the story progresses the way that it does. He is spoilt, cruel  and vicious. He treats those around him with contempt and encourages the machinations of those that strove for power and influence. 

Stephen's writing is enthralling and absorbing. Initially, she intricately weaves the plot, building both the world and the characters. However, when she comes to the final act of the book she commands the story like a maestro, carefully orchestrating each strand of the story to reach a tumultuous climax that literally had my jaw dropping as the story takes bloody and surprising turns. At times, the story is akin to a Greek tragedy with the twists it takes and I had to stop for a minute to take a breath. 

At times, this is a brutal and bloody book, whilst not grimdark, it is definitely dark. The battle scenes are brutal and the Singers storyline is both bloody and horrific. However, whilst the story is painted in swathes of blood and darkness there are periods of lightness and romance. There is lots of love and tenderness in the book, particularly with Tayan and Lilla whose devotion to each other counterbalances the darkness. Even the Machiavellian Enet does show some niceness in her love for her son and her role as a mother.

As this is my first introduction to the work of Anna Stephens, I have to say that I will be searching out her other works while I wait impatiently for the second instalment of the Songs of the Drowned.
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‘The Stone Knife’ is the first book in the intended ‘Songs of the Drowned’ trilogy, a new gritty epic fantasy series by Anna Stephens. The writing is raw and visceral, the world-building broad in scope, and the characters varied and intriguing. It’s a book that demands attention – it took me almost a month to read, because I regularly didn’t have the concentration and energy it required – but when given its due, this is a worthwhile read.

Over decades, the tribes of Ixachipan have fallen one by one to the Empire of Songs. Now just two tribes – the Tokob and Yalot – remain, determined to hold onto their freedom. Tayan, a shaman of the Tokob, communes with his goddess and determines to seek peace with the Empire – but his husband Lilla is preparing for war, and their friend Xessa is struggling to keep the Tokob safe from the threat of the Drowned, crocodile-like beasts which guard the tribe’s only water source. Meanwhile, Enet – first courtesan of the Singer, the ruler of the Empire of Songs – is trying to hold onto her tenuous position in his court, and Pilos, High Feather of the Empire’s armies, is trying to assure the Empire’s dominance over Ixachipan whilst dealing with Enet’s meddling closer to home. Epic fantasies which show all sides of the story are fantastic, showing that no force is precisely right or wrong, and Stephens doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities committed by all sides in war.

The difficulty with large numbers of perspectives is it takes some time to adjust to and care about them all, and the story definitely starts slowly. The reader is introduced to the Tokob and their way of life – their shamanic rituals to their goddess Malel, their fight against the Drowned just to obtain water, the way each citizen swears their life to a certain path (e.g. the jaguar path for warriors or the snake path for those who face the Drowned). Once this is established, the counter perspectives – those living ‘under the song’ in the Empire – are gradually introduced. It takes a good 40% of the novel before everything settles and the story can start to gather pace. It also leads to some characters – especially Tayan and Xessa – being easier to care about than others. Xessa especially is a fascinating character – it’s unusual to see a Deaf character in fantasy, and the way this is both an asset and hindrance depending on the circumstance is well written. She’s also feisty, strong-willed, and has an unbelievably sweet romantic arc as well as the most loyal canine companion of all time.

The setting, Ixachipan, is inspired by central American civilisations. It’s a forest environment, with seasons of rain and drought playing a huge part in shaping society. While the central American influence is clear, the direction Stephens has taken it feels fresh and unique, and the additional fantasy elements are worked in seamlessly. An industrial colonising empire vs those with a more traditional way of life has been written many times before in many iterations, but Stephens blends in new ideas to keep this from feeling stale.

The diversity is also excellent. Gender – and attraction to genders – is mostly irrelevant in both Pechaqueh and Tokob society, with a central relationship between two male characters (Lilla and Tayan), and as many female warriors as male. Xessa is Deaf, and whilst there’s mention that this would likely lead to her death if she was born into the Empire, it’s seen as an asset to the Tokob.

There are minor issues with ‘The Stone Knife’. All epic fantasies start slowly – it takes time to understand the world and differentiate and care about the wide range of characters – but the pacing throughout feels a tad erratic, with some sections veering away from action to several paragraphs of explanation or time-skipping. Certain characters are also particularly irritating – there was one in particular who almost made me want to skip sections – and whilst I respect the author for writing difficult characters, it detracted from my enjoyment. However, it’s a solid novel and builds plenty of intrigue for what happens next.

This reads more like a Part One than a complete novel, with plenty of cliffhangers awaiting resolution in Book Two. I’ll definitely be picking up the second to find out what happens next.

Overall, this is a highly intriguing first book that creates an excellent – if dark – world with plenty of potential, populated by a diverse group of fascinating characters. Recommended for all fans of darker, grittier epic fantasy and diverse worlds.
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Anna Stephens brings a whole new world to life with bloody glory in The Stone Knife. The Empire of Songs has slowly been advancing its reach over Ixachipan through bloody conquest. It will not stop under every single person is under the Song. They worship the holy Setat, sacrificing untold numbers to keep their gods appeased. But for the Tokob and Yaloh these creatures are not holy, they are the Drowned and to hear their song is to meet death. Terrifying monsters that infest rivers, killing without mercy. With the Empire of Songs marching on them and the Drowned growing seemingly more numerous every day, the Tokob and Yaloh fight a desperate battle for survival.

The Stone Knife follows seven perspectives; Xessa – an eja, Lilla – a Fang leading a Paw of Tokob warriors, Tayan – a Tokob shaman, Enet, Spear of the City, Pilos – High Feather and commander of the Melody, Illandeh – a Xentib refugee and finally The Singer, who’s will shapes the Song. I would not be intimidated by the number of pov characters in The Stone Knife. Anna is fantastic at multi-pov stories, not just in terms of being able to forge distinct characters but also in terms of being able to weave together a story that is seamless and stays engaging throughout. Even when you hate a particular character you still cannot put the book down.

One of my favourite elements about The Stone Knife is that it features a queernorm society and it’s done fantastically. As Anna and I spoke on in my interview with her, though it’s getting better, grimdark fantasy can still be very allocishet and heteronormative or what rep is there is just used as cannon fodder. In The Stone Knife, there are numerous queer characters; a lot of the mcs, side characters and minor characters. Casual use of ‘all genders’ rather than the alternative. Tayan and Lilla are an established married gay couple and their love for each other is just so heart-wrenching. The Stone Knife also gives us some wonderful deaf representation through Xessa. Xessa is deaf but for her and other eja this is never presented as a hindrance, more than anything it makes them an incredible asset in the fight against the Drowned. Sign language is used and Xessa has the goodest boy Ossa by her side. I am partially deaf, not deaf, however it was fantastic to see this representation on the page in an epic fantasy.

Anna writes fantastic villains. They are hateful people and more than a few of them in The Stone Knife brought out some murderous tendencies but you cannot fault Anna’s ability to craft a villain. I wouldn’t even necessarily call them villains because it’s too simplistic. These people, much like some in real life, are so devoted to their beliefs and so utterly sure of the righteousness of their path that they see themselves as the heroes and saviours. They don’t see the bloodshed and pain they unleash on others as a bad thing, they truly believe they are bringing salvation to these people by bringing them under the song. You have a character like Pilos, who’s on the side of the oppressor and believes he can bring peace through war and there are moment when you catch yourself thinking that compared to say Enet, he’s not so awful and he has moments of apparent kindness, where you think could he be redeemed? Then in his next chapter he does something awful and it’s jarring in a way. It makes you think about the ways in which we can be conditioned to accept a lesser evil and think ‘this person’s isn’t so bad’. But just because an enemy respects your courage, it doesn’t negate the fact he will still kill you for what he believes in. What I am saying is for all you will hate them, Anna does not write 2D villains, they are infuriating as they are brilliantly written.

The Stone Knife is relentless. It is intense and brutal and all sorts fucked up but my gods is is brilliant. I made the mistake of drinking a hot chocolate while I was reading one time and I’d caution against food or drink because some of it will turn your stomach 😅 It is not for the faint-hearted but I definitely recommend it if you are looking for a fantastic grimdark fantasy. There’s queernorm societies, multiple queer characters, deaf characters and the bestest doggo. If you loved Godblind, you’ll love The Stone Knife. I wasn’t sure if there was more room in my heart for characters that will stab you straight in the feels after Godblind but Anna has done it again with this (Tayan I love you). These characters (not you Enet – I mean the good ones) will move you with their courage and hopes and you’ll desparately want to protect them even as Anna puts them through hell.

Content Warnings: slavery, child death, animal death, extreme violence, gore, human sacrifice.
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Rich, immersive fantasy. I think the author has come a long way since Godblind. The worldbuilding was spectacular and the characters were interesting enough to keep me turning pages. It didn’t knock my socks off but I would like to read the next one.
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THE STONE KNIFE is a sweeping Grimdark fantasy with a brutally bloody plot and engaging characters. The author explores the consequences of colonisation and cultural eradication in a sensitive manner. The cast of characters was at the heart of the story and I loved the fierce Xessa and the peace-weaver Tayan especially. 

Probably the element I most loved, however, was the queer-norm societal structures. My cinnamon-rolls Lilla and Tayan better not stay apart for too long though as I miss them already. If you're looking for a book to sink your teeth into, then I'd highly recommend THE STONE KNIFE.
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With a diverse cast; an immersive and absorbing plot; and enough twists and drama to keep you reading, The Stone Knife is Anna Stephens's most accomplished and absorbing book to date. It's well written, unsettling and visceral right from the start and the jungle setting added an extra dimension to the story. Those who have enjoyed Stephens's fantasies previously will find much to love here and new readers are also in for a treat. Highly recommended.
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Good Afternoon Bookish Folk!

Today I am really happy to be sharing with you my review of Anna Stephens ‘The Stone knife‘ and on its day of publication no less!

YAYY!! Happy Publication Day!

Firstly, I would like to thank HarperVoyager for approving my NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Here are a few things you can expect from :

Gods and mysterious monsters;
Love, loyally and family;
Bloody battles;
Political intrigue;
Darker scenes and swift melodic brutality; and 
Mesoamerican vibes.

On to the full review…

You know it is always so fascinating reading the works of a new author, and no I don’t mean debut author but an author new to the reader. That is what Anna Stephens is to me, a new author. So it was a delight to dip my toe into the waters of her wonderful writing. Stephens sets up her novel really really well, it was honestly great seeing the many interpretations of the Drowned to start off this story, especially considering they are such a big part of the book. However, what made this book have such a great start was something even more skilful. It was the delicate weaving of seemingly insignificant world facts that by a few pages into your reading have you building such a well-grounded and magnificent world so efficiently and one your imagination can truly go wild with. 

Stephens writing as a whole is beautiful, and while I rave about her world building and more in this review that is not its only strength. Stephens prose are beautiful while remaining wholly authentic. If it is your first time reading her writing worry not, her writing is fluid, understandable and very well balanced. She is a brilliant storyteller!

“It sounded like the sunset looks. It sounded like all the world is there just to make you gasp with wonder, to open your heart so wide that it can absorb all that beauty and hold it and be it and never lose it, no matter what.” 

And the battle and fight sequences are epic, Stephens give you all the action and the impact!

This story is a beautiful one, and inexplicably powerful. It is a bloody tale of gods, monsters, war and death but it is one of family, love, loyalty and faith. Stephens manages to authentically showcase the development of her character’s relationships, though not in a tasteless and too obvious way, and when we are shown just how far those characters have come you truly understand the depths of their actions and the significance of them. 

”She hesitated, then she licked her thumb and pressed it to his temple and he stilled, shocked, before a rush of affection and gratitude surged through him. She had gifted him a piece of her courage, her spirit, to aid him in the war. She had named him family.”

I think this is quite possibly the first book I have read that is written in such a setting too. The lush jungle (even though Goodreads says forests I see nothing but jungle soo) and wonderful cities steeped in such history and lore were beautiful to read. It really gave me Apocalypto vibes, and I would pay good money to see this as a TV series! I want to say that it based off Mesoamerican, as it greatly reminded me of the Maya civilization and/or the Aztecs but I could be wrong. 

The Stone Knife is a larger book, with a page count of 600+ but Stephens used the pages effectively. It has great focus on the worldbuilding and introducing us to this book’s incredible characters. The chapters are also a little longer, though this is actually really well done. When an authors opt for several POV’s they run the risk of not introducing them with enough depth that by the time you next see their chapter you’re not sure who they were. This is not an issue in The Stone Knife, after each introduction you are clear on who they are and where they are.

“I‘d rather die fighting than die at the teeth of one of the things after years on my knees for these arrogant shits.”

I think that there are maybe seven character POV’s in this book, but don’t quote me, and each and every single one of them is a thrill to read! I really like that more books, or at least the ones I have been reading, are giving both sides POV. You still know who you are rooting for and who you want to win but all are still enjoyable. I don’t sometimes like it when I see the ”bad guys” POV because you can so blatantly dislike them and you just don’t want to listen to their shit, but Stephens does an incredible job of avoiding that. One of my favourite characters to read was definitely not good and I loved their world bubble, their family and side characters that surrounded them. I think that says a lot about Stephens’s ability to write outstanding characters!

Something’s I truly loved about this was the political manoeuvrings and intrigue, it is too often that I see some politically sly genius who always gets their way and they are infallible in their position. Everything goes in their favour until the main character somehow thwarts the attempts through chance, so it was so exciting to see the sly political genius written in a truer light. They win some and they lost some and it only amped up the tension and risk for the characters who are playing such dangerous games. 

A final note of praise for this book too is the ability of Stephens to seamlessly represent the many and not in a ’hey look my main character is deaf” way. Stephens did not need to make her writing shout about character relations or the fact that Xessa had a disability, it was just there. Natural, refreshing and REAL! 

I finished this book in two days, it made me into the biggest book sloth ever. I moved from my reading corner to eat and that’s about it. This book will inevitably grip you in some way when you start reading it and I really hope you do. I am already dying for the next book in this series. 

The Stone Knife is an incredible book. Remarkable characters, a breathtaking world and savage brutality! It is bloody and it is magnificent, so at least add it to your Goodreads!

As you are now aware I rate on a buy the hardback, buy the paperback, buy eBook or library rental/wait for a sale scale. I really need a buy the audiobook in there too now I listen to audiobooks!

Anywho back to the book in hand (mmmm see what I did there?)

RIGHT! Well, I don’t know if you could tell but I really liked this book and I am super excited to say it is definitely a BUY THE HARDBACK rated book. Even better it is also the Goldsboro Book sooo…I am way to excited to get that!

The Stone Knife is a world I WILL return to
The cover is beautiful
It is the first book of this type for me, or at least the first I have loved this much because if I have read any other I don’t refer them at all, so it deserves a special place on my bookshelves!
I want this trilogy standing proud on my shelves! I am so excited for book two and the direction it will take!
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Well, that was a helluva book. Visceral, dark, gripping, bloody, brutal...as you'd expect from the author, but also full of love, friendship, diverse characters, and impressive worldbuilding. It's about a war between not just nations, but cultures, religions, ways of life and also individuals. And while it may appear the "evil empire against the plucky underdogs" (also, with actual dogs), it's all a bit more complex than that. For my taste, I was a bit impatient that the mysteries weren't more centred, rather than the relationships and ambitions of all the POV characters, but it still won me over in the end. In fact, it grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Fans of dark epic fantasy should love the way this book sets the stage for what's shaping up to be a harrowing journey for characters and readers alike. Recommended - but not for the faint-hearted perhaps!
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I used this advanced review copy to interview Anna Stephens on the Fantasy Inn podcast (link to episode included).
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I had little expectations going into this book. Having never read anything by Anna Stephens before I wasn't prepared for the sheer brutality, the wonderfully diverse well built characters and a world that is almost written into being. I don't think it will come across as too much of a surprise to say I loved it.  Told from multiple perspectives both from The Tokob and The Empire of Songs, Stephen's weaves together a plot so intricate you struggle to differentiate between friend and foe. She writes brilliant diverse & well fleshed out characters. There are ones you will love & ones you will love to hate but each perspective plays a vital part in the story, even if it isn’t obvious from the beginning:

Xessa is an eja, an elite band of Tokoban warriors whose job is is to deal with the drowned. Human like beings that live in the water and seduce people to their death through their song. Xessa deafness makes her uniquely suited to the task and along with her eja partner, Toxte and her loyal dog Ossa. She leads a relatively simple life surrounded by her loved ones, but would do anything to protect those she loves.

Lilla is a Fang, a leader of a Tokoban paw of warriors. His job as of late has been trawling the jungle looking for Yalotlan refugees and ending the lives of any rogue Empire warriors that venture too far. He longs for the war to be over so he can spend time with his husband and other loved ones. He is both brutal on the battlefield and caring at home, but he will need to rely on his brutality in the war to come. 

Tayan, a Tokob Shamen and husband to Lilla. His job is to converse with the Gods and when they tell him to take a Peace Weaving company to The Empire of Songs he knows how vital a job it is. He is unprepared for the scheming of the Empire's people, nor for how the Song will effect him. When he realises the Empire has no intention of Peace he races back to those he loves hoping he isn't too late, only to find more unrest in Tokob itself, unrest that may be their undoing. 

Enet, courtesan & High Octave to the Singer. She is a prime position to affect the Singers mood, thoughts and decisions. She is a schemer to the bone, using her influence to reduce her enemies in the council one by one, until one day she does something that she cannot take back, something that effects the song as well as the Singer, and something that has far reaching consequences.

Pilos, The High Eagle. He is the leader of the Singer's warriors, and simply wants to see the Empire his Singers wishes come to fruition. He is more than aware of Enet's scheming, and hopes that one day she digs herself too deep a hole to climb out of. He see's those not under the Song as lesser, and uses all of his strength and persuasion to convince them to join. 

Illandeh, a Yalotlan refugee in Tokob. Her's is a perspective we don't really hear from until around 40% of the way through but her actions lead to me shouting WTF loud enough for my sister to feel the need to come check on me.

The Singer, the ruler of the Empire of Song. It is his Song the people hear and feel. His Song that ensures all under the Song are complaint, his might that will bring all of Ixachipan together, ensuring peace across the continent. But when one day his Song changes, his needs become insatiable and his Song seeds unrest amongst those in the Empire. 

Man this book is brutal! Stephens writing is incredibly descriptive... even in the parts you might not want it to be. Her depictions of fights, both on the battlefield and off were astounding and at some points a little creepy. . It took me a while to get into the swing of the story. She writes some long chapters and the different tribes/magic etc took a little to get used to. But once I got to around 20% I was hooked. The world building is sublime & the magic system is so unique and brilliantly written.

The Stone Knife has it all, brilliantly developed and diverse characters, plot twists that will have you shouting out loud, romance, political intrigue and dogs! This months reading has been filled with Epic Fantasy and I am incredible eager to get my hands on the sequel.
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A brilliant opener for the new series from Anna Stephens. This time she moves from a   Celtic/ Roman fantasy to an Incan, Aztec Mayan conflict. Anyone who has read the preceding series will be familiar with her skilful use of  themes of love, honour, betrayal  and vicious brutality- which she uses once again to create an absorbing multi layered story.

The book opens with the eco warrior Xessa  trying to protect her city’s vital water supply,  barely surviving an  attack from the “Drowned” ”and the pace never flags from then on.

Xessa’s society is also under threat from the Empire of Songs. From Pechacan, the heart of the Empire,  comes the invading General Pilos . totally loyal to the Singer of the Song. Pilos will ruthlessly crush any opposing forces  but even his position is threatened by his  council rival the devious  Enet   She is willing to sacrifice anything  and anyone to maintain influence  over the Singer and  achieve ultimate power herself.

I enjoyed the clash  of two opposing cultures , on the one hand the warlike Empire of Songs who exploit and abuse the land, revelling  in expanding their empire by  slaughtering  and enslaving their neighbours. These unfortunates once conquered are held in subjugation by the brainwashing effect of  the Song and bribed with a place in the Empire for their families —-that is if they continue to give  beneficial service. There is also the threat of arbitrary human sacrifice to the mysterious Holy Setat who the Empire  worship as  Gods.

The Tokob people of Xessa however, respect the land and live peacefully and harmonious with nature but find themselves  continually threatened by the Drowned  and the ever expanding Empire.

A further complication  is that the  Drowned and  the Holy Setat are one and the same. One sides God is the other sides Vermin. An incendiary situation waiting to explode!

This is a  well structured and enthralling novel with no punches pulled as the author highlights the fault-lines and tensions in  both society and personal relationships.
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"The Stone Knife" is a ride and a half. The character list is probably the most diverse of any book I've read so far this year and they are all crafted magnificently. The story is hard-edged, gory and gruesome, and also very, very human at its core. The imagination that has gone into the world-building here is astonishing, and I'm very much looking forward to the next book in the series. 

My thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley. This review was written voluntarily and is entirely my own, unbiased, opinion.
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I'm sorry, I had to DNF this one. I've struggled to read it for the past couple of days and today at 41% I had to give up. The book is told in chapters of different characters. I can't think of the number off the top of my head, however I think so far I've read about 5. This book is complicated and needs a lot of concentration. I couldn't tell you the number of characters there are, there are so many. I expect it may just be me, I haven't read a book this detailed before and I struggled with the story, world building and animals dying/cruelty as I'm no good with animals being harmed. I feel like at almost half way through the book, nothing has happened other than political arguments and each"side" trying to persuade the other that they were the right "side". It was just too long, wordy and intense for me and I struggled with the gore and cruelty of the characters.

Apologies, this wasn't one for me. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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My main issue with this book was the sheer length. It was just so long and felt like it really lacked focus. I kept wondering what I was supposed to be rooting to happen, and waiting for something to happen that would grab me. Instead, the book just dragged on. I feel like the book could have been 200 pages shorter and thus more engaging. Once it fell to the inevitable battle, I lost all interest because it was two sides I didn't care about fighting.

There were at least six POVs, on all different sides of the war, but I don't know what the point of most of them was. What did Lilla add, for example? Given that the characters were on the opposite sides of the war, I think I was meant to be rooting for both sides? But I just ended up not caring about either. Enet was just too selfish for me to like her at all, and the others were mostly flat and emotionless. The only one I really liked was Tayan, but he fell out of prominence and impact in the second half.

I don't know if this book is being called grim dark, but there wasn't the grim hopelessness that feels necessary to me to merit that name. Instead it just felt excessively bloody, gory, and violent. The empire felt like it could be beaten, but wasn't going to be as this was the first book, and the endless swearing just meant the words had no impact.

The world was about the only interesting bit of the book - a stone and jungle based world that I think (judging by names and environment) is loosely inspired by one of the empires native to South America. There are pyramids and blood sacrifices and words that conjured up that general vibe to me.
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For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as a nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.

The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with deadly music of their own.

As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.

The Stone Knife is set in a central South America setting, which gives the story a fresh and vibrant feel more than your normal fantasy at the moment. The world is textured, sometimes complicated, often rich and beautiful. There are some wonderful themes and richness to Stephen’s writing, it felt like Stephen’s Godblind trilogy was just a primer for The Songs of the Drowned.

The characters created by Stephen's are as diverse as you would want in a modern fantasy book. There are multiple characters to follow, they are multi-faceted and POV all shine through, they feel very realistic, their motivations are every bit as real. There is plenty of scheming, corruption and musical spirituality. The Stone Knife is often uncompromisingly violent, different shades dark, and beautiful at the same time. Themes explored are expansionism, colonialism, loyalty, honour and betrayal.

One of the most impressive fantasy novels released this year. 
I received an e-arc from #NetGalley and #HarperVoyager, all opinions expressed are my own.
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Anna Stephens is officially back!  This is a fantastic book that kicks of a new trilogy in a richly imagined world.  I seriously enjoyed every single moment of this book!

A fair warning this is a violent book and it can be brutal, though not on the same level as Godblind.  There is something wonderful about reading a fight scene that Anna has written, it flows beautifully and in a way that is difficult to describe.  In a way some of these scenes really pushed me to keep reading the book, it was some of these moments when I had my heart in my mouth wondering if these characters are going to survive.

Speaking of characters, oh my there are some truly memorable characters for you to meet here and truly diverse characters as well.  One of my admired aspects of Anna’s writing is her character work, she will make you care about every single POV character and her well drawn secondary characters.  Xessa was fantastic from start to finish and one of new favourite characters in this world, and I really routed for Lillia and Tayan as well.  This is a story of conflict, and whichever side the characters were on I routed for them.  What is wonderful about the characters you will meet, there are no black and white between each side with their own motivations and voices.  One of the best things though was representation from disabilities to sexuality, Anna writes these characters with real sympathy and they are wonderfully depicted, ultimately this is one of the reasons why I love her work.

The next step is the word building and the world that Anna has created.  It felt so different, be prepared to be transported to a world not unlike Central American civilisation.  The world has such a wonderful depth and breadth, even with the terrifying monsters that prowl it.  The “Drowned” threat is very real even from the beginning, they are wonderfully creepy and dangerous as well.  This is one of the most unique fantasy worlds ever created, it was fantastic to explore and I cannot wait to see more of this vibrant and alive world in the rest of this trilogy.

The idea of song is so relevant to this book, it comes upon you from the beginning and envelopes you as a reader.  This leads me to an important point, this is a wonderful example of character driven fantasy, there is a lot of information that will hit you in this story but it is so well handled by Anna and yet again she has delivered a fine first novel in a projected series.  The multiple POV’s presented are key to this, both sides of the conflict are presented and show this most wonderful of worlds, a key thing for me was the slightly slower pace it allowed me to really experience the world, story and characters and I cannot wait for the next book.

So there you are, The Stone Knife by Anna Stephens is another fantastic example of well written character driven fantasy.  It has one of the most unique worlds I have read this year, some wonderful characterisation across POV’s and secondary ones.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020 and it is easily in my top, a brutal and wonderfully written novel that will sing to you.  This easily has my seal of approval, I cannot recommend this book enough to you to read.
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This book is amazing and anyone that says otherwise can go jump in the river ;)

I loved the setting, the Aztec / Central America vibe is so different from the norm - it's fun, vibrant and fresh. 

The plot is complex and there are a lot of layers to it, take it a little bit slower and engage your braincells and the nuance really shines through. 

The characters are really where this book sings though - they are first and foremost real people and everyone of them has reasons for doing what they do. By understanding the characters it makes the villains more frightening and despicable (I can't even talk about my favourite characters because spoilers, which is grossly unfair!)  

Basically anyone with an interest in fantasy, myths, excellent storytelling and the best written villains needs to read this.
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