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The Stone Knife

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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 <em>point</em> 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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4.5 stars.
I read Godblind when it came out and really liked it so I jumped at the chance to read this, and I have to say that I think I enjoyed this even more!
I loved the world building, seeing the two warring civilisations that seem to be almost two sides to the same coin but also quite different. I also loved having POV characters from both sides of the conflict, as it gave loads of really interesting grey areas to the story and the characters. I really liked the magic systems in this, as they were completely different to anything else I'd read.
One of the things that most impressed me about this book was the way the characters were so representational- with LGBT characters and a deaf main character. These were written so genuinely and authentically, and it was fantastic to see.
I can't wait for the rest of this series - I will definitely be reading them.
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Damn I absolutely loved this book. The writing is incredible and the story had me hooked from the very first page! I love how perfectly Anna weaves the story and the world building together, I didn’t want to put it down and I need another 200 books in this world right now!
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In the forests of Ixachipan, nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs—their endless, magical music undefeated for generations long. What remains of the free tribes, Tokoban and Yalotlan, remain in Ixachipan facing threats from both the Empire’s impending domination and the threat of the Drowned—monstrous and scaled predators with a magical music of their own.

From the get-go, I knew The Stone Knife was going to be different from Godblind. This was evident in Stephens’s use of ominous interludes between chapters, and the more character-focused narrative she employs throughout the book. The Stone Knife starts out with such a dangerous opening enough to unsettle but spends most of its earlier pages laying down the Ixachipan and its beating hearts. Sure, it took a while for me to navigate the semantics and mechanics in Ixachipan but Stephens’s prose weaves those details to the narrative seamlessly and her world is refreshingly vast with wonder. I was also able to take in all the various main point of views and where they are rooted in the world. As if trained, I foresaw the lines for all the pieces of the narrative and the general trajectories they might intersect with each other. Ill-fated as it may be, the process is so indulgent I could not help but keep going through the pages, driven by thirst for more. Both the gritty and the tranquil are laid down in The Stone Knife, whereas Godblind opted for a blood-first approach; and I think this approach appeals to me a lot more. After opening with a mostly tranquil status quo with sprinkles of horror here and there, The Stone Knife injects one with a poisonous fear that everything is going to go horribly wrong; and per the rules of Anna Stephens-verse, go bloody wrong they do indeed.

Aside from her infamous “hammer” scene in Godblind, Stephens had also made quite a name for herself for her quick, adrenaline-pumping, and visceral action sequences. The Stone Knife drives up the violence to full-throttle, reasonably spreading out in sparse rations the first half of the book. Once the pieces on the board clash together though? The stage descends to utter insanity. The set pieces in The Stone Knife are utterly merciless and especially decadent, layered with overflowing emotions and tension that have stewed for so long in (relative) peacetime conflict its release is both cathartic and terrifying to witness.

Stephens also particularly excels in her ability to simultaneously draw the clear line between the protagonists and the antagonists in her stories, yet also blurring said line. Stephens’s execution was something else I had regarded it one of her trademark crafts, and I was incredibly pleased to see this aspect return stronger – which I attribute to her masterful characterization. While we still witness the clear division between the “good” and the “bad” in the larger picture, the lines get blurry real fast when the perspective switches back and forth between the Empire and the free tribes. On both sides we see people simply existing with firm beliefs in their faith and relationships. Some are more likable than others, but everyone has something that makes their emotions palpable: love, fear for loved ones, guilt, ambition. These blurred lines soon introduce many riveting moments where beliefs are challenged and loyalties are tested. Regardless of loyalty, everyone paints a well-realized picture of the various shades of humanity. Context is a luxury that only us readers have in this story, and Stephens excellently integrates this fact as a hallmark of her writing.

The Stone Knife promptly takes this strength to highlight a key theme to its story: colonisation. Relatable and human as the characters in the Empire are, Stephens pulls no punches in exposing the devious workings of the Empire’s violent erasure of indigenous cultures in their so-called “assimilation programs.” Much of the conflict between the free tribes and the Empire of Songs hinges on the fact that the Empire forcibly uproots indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands—often by military invasion and subjugation—and converts them to a belief of their own. What little freedom and faith they have left are then restricted and molded to fit the Empire’s own picture. Aside from the survival horror the Drowned provide, Stephens injects plenty doses of social thriller/horror in exploring the illusion of choice life in the Empire offers – especially as a person “brought under the song.” Slavery is framed as a chance to properly assimilate and “earn” the right to enter the Empire’s mainstream culture, and any dissent is swiftly threatened with death in the hands of the Drowned that the Empire worships as the divine entity “holy Setatmeh.” What loyalty forms once someone “assimilates” is one based on fear, ambition, or greed. The Empire may pat its back by singing praises of how they foster equality, peace, and harmony but Stephens makes sure to let readers know of its true nature: it takes, takes, and only takes.

Reading The Stone Knife, I’d made a lot of comparisons to Stephens’s first grimdark novel Godblind and I think it’s fair enough to say that The Stone Knife is a mark of Stephens’s vast growth as a writer. She retains her core strengths: visceral prose, bloody carnages, violent clash of beliefs, and masterful character work; and sets them in an ambitiously complex world to explore her equally ambitious themes. There is much violence, pain, and gore abound amidst the twists and turns, but so are love, hope, ambition, and desires (dark and/or otherwise). Beautifully woven and executed, The Stone Knife is sure to be a breathtaking read.

The Stone Knife has a lot of heart, and is as brutally bloody as the fantasy scene has come to expect from Anna Stephens’s works. The Stone Knife, however, also raises her personal bar to new heights as she explores colonialism with her own blood-soaked take. Never has music sounded more terrifying in The Stone Knife, where colonisation is as unapologetically bloody as it is devious. It is indisputably one of the most impressively insidious entries in the fantasy genre I’ve read in 2020. A violent, dark, and beautiful song, The Stone Knife is a powerful start to Stephens’s new series The Songs of the Drowned.

Anna Stephens is back; and don’t you worry, fans. She is bloodier, grittier, and better than ever.

My many thanks to NetGalley, and HarperVoyager for providing an e-ARC of this book for an honest review!
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ANNA STEPHENS IS BACK! This is the first in a brand-new trilogy, in a brand-new world, and I loved every single moment of this book from the very first word until the last. 
    The Stone Knife, as might be expected to anyone familiar with Stephens’ first trilogy, is brutal, although not so much in the ‘grimdark’ way that Godblind was often characterised as being. But, still brutal and bloody, and written with such vividness that you can’t help but have a visceral reaction to what is happening on the pages. Not for the faint at heart, but it is so beautifully executed that it has you reeling even as you need to keep reading, need more of the intensity. The best thing is that it never overwhelms the plot or the characters, even as it is an essential part of the narrative, and it has different notes – there are the moments of loud, chaotic violence and brutality, and then there are the quieter moments that have you holding your breath, and praying that the characters will survive.
   Because, the characters – and there are multiple POV characters – are so well-realised and individual, that you can’t help but become heavily invested in each and every one of them (as well as all the secondary characters) and I am absolutely terrified for what might happen to them in future books. Xessa was an almost instant favourite, and remains up there and will most likely be one of my favourites for the entire series, while Lilla and Tayan completely stole my heart, but there was not one single character that I wasn’t invested in. Every one of the characters, regardless of which side of the ‘conflict’ they are on, have their own voices and motivations, and what I have always loved about Stephens’ characterisation, is that there is never any black and white between the sides. Every character is a person, complex and living within their own world, their view of the world around them and their actions and faith, all shaped by context and interactions with other characters, and not only does that make for a much richer world, but it also breathes life into them and the narrative and feels so wonderfully, painfully human even when we are different from them and even when they are at their core unlikeable characters.
    I don’t want to call it representation because here it is so much part of the world, that you couldn’t imagine the characters or the book without it, but it is excellent. Xessa, one of the main POV characters is deaf, and it is univocally part of her character, and it is there in the little details – from feeling vibrations to being partnered with a dog – realistically depicted in a fantastical world, and it is just one facet of who she is just as it shapes her, and is an integral part of the world, of her society, and that is how it should be. Similarly, gender and sexuality are just there, part of the world, as natural as breathing – people are just who they are, love who they love – and I need to read more books where it feels like this.
    The world-building was spectacular and intricate, and while it took me a little while to acclimatise to this very different world, it was so refreshing and well-written that it was worth that patience because this is a world I want to live in more and more (even with the terrifying monsters). Inspired by Central American Civilisations, this world was new and had such breadth and depth from the start, that you can’t help but be pulled in even while trying to find your feet, and there is such a variety of faith and cultures and experiences, while still leaving that tantalising feeling of so much more to come. The threat of the ‘Drowned’ was imminent and palpable from the very beginning, and they are deliciously creepy, and it was fascinating to see them so irrevocably entangled with the characters and cultures, a threat that had to be adapted to rather than outright avoided.
   The Stone Knife feels like the song that is so integral to the plot, it weaves around you from the beginning, and it feels like the book has a voice of its own that wraps around your heart. There is a lot of information, an entire world to be built, and yet there is never any feeling of there being info dumps or being strong-armed into the world because the story is woven around us word by word, page by page, character voice by character voice. The multiple POVs builds into this, offering us so many different viewpoints and experiences, built up with longer chapters and slightly slower pacing before the blood starts to cover the pages.

This was one of my most anticipated reads for this year, and now probably my favourite read of 2020. Brutal, beautiful, and I have already lost my heart to this new cast of characters and will live in fear and love for them until the end of this series. I cannot recommend The Stone Knife highly enough; it has everything I want from my fantasy and more (with added bloodshed).
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Usually, I think I’m pretty good at picking books I know I’ll like. Or rather, I don’t pick books I know I’ll actively dislike. So, I thought, with The Stone Knife, I had a shoo-in.

I did not have a shoo-in.

It’s hard to say exactly why I didn’t like this one. On the face of it, a slowburning adult fantasy with depth to its worldbuilding, I should have loved it. And it wasn’t really a mood thing, because I started this at the same time as another book I could thus describe.

I think the primary reason for me not getting along with this was the fact it’s 600 pages long and not a whole lot happens. I mean, things do happen, but nothing Happens. There was never any point where I thought oh shit and was, from then on, fully engaged. None of what happened in the plot grabbed me, none of it made me urgently want to read more. There weren’t really any questions that I had of the plot, if that makes sense. The events that happened in the book felt somewhat superficial, as if they had no underlying significance. Of course, this could well be just me. But I just felt that the narrative didn’t throw up any questions.

It’s entirely possible this is what bored me. It’s entirely possible I was bored well before that. Either way, it wasn’t really a gradual decline into boredom - it only took about the first 100 pages, really, for me to be able to tell it wouldn’t be for me. I think, actually, that length played a role too. Six hundred pages is a pretty big book, and there were at least seven POVs, so the story felt stretched out in a way that I didn’t enjoy. The plot slowed down (not that it was massively fast to begin with) and I - you guessed it! - got bored.

And there wasn’t anything like a final act holy fuck moment. Everything just went to shit, without any sort of hopeful twist to it. In all honesty, it felt like 600 pages of build up to a big event that never happened.

On top of this, it was also pretty gorey, and that’s not something I particularly like my fantasy to be.

None of this is not to say it’s a bad book, however; it just wasn’t a book for me. The worldbuilding was immersive and thorough (and had no homophobia!), and I did, somewhat, like the characters in the sense I didn’t want bad things to happen to them (and, predictably, bad things did happen). And, overall, I wish I had enjoyed it!

So, really, if this book sounds like something you would enjoy, just ignore my review.
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This is an impressive bit of world building, and once I got into it, quite a compulsive start to a big canvas tale of empires, colonialism and tyranny. The setting feels broadly based on Mexican / South American cultural furnishings, we have pyramids, we have consolidation of empires over tribes and water gods who can entrap with a song. The story bounces between a number of characters (possibly too many) between the encroaching Empire and one of the few tribes left free. The aim of the Empire is the bring everyone in the world under the power of "The Song" - a subtle mood altering communal piece of much spread across the entirety of its land (via handwavy pyramids). The book tries, at least in part, to make its Empire look as attractive as the free life - the free tribe has a pretty miserable lot having to deal with swamp monsters regularly. But The Singer - the spiritual leader of the Empire - slowly gets corrupted so that even if you thing having an enitre population swayed by a mood altering song was a good thing, you might question it when the song gets corrupted with violence.

Stephens has built a pretty grim world here, and yet it is one that sadly feels surprisingly relevant with the political machinations going on behind the scenes. The book really clicked for me when the peace negotiations start about a third in, where one side negotiates in good faith, the other (with the power) with contempt. Latterly in the book our scheming adviser start to question exactly what she has done, trapped in a cycle that she knows now will doom them all. This is a chunky book and we do get into the heads of a lot of protagonists, Love is held as firm driver for much action here, and the desperation of love during warfare leads to a lot of the more weighty sequences in the book.

The Stone Knife has a novel, well drawn setting and has the depth and robustness in its characters to be not just a solidly told story but feel like it is actually about something. It is however very much the first part of a longer tale, and while where it ends feels like a natural break in the story, there is nothing that resembles a conclusion. And whilst there are hints of where it might be going, there are also hints that it will continue on a dark path before anything gets better. Its good but not for the feint at heart.

[NetGalley ARC]
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After loving the Godblind trilogy, I was very excited to see what Anna Stephens came out with next and I was not disappointed. I very much enjoyed the story and the characters.

The Stone Knife is set in a fantasy world inspired by pre-conquest Central America which, I have to admit, I have never read any fantasy novels based on that particular area so this felt very fresh and something new to me. The novel follows multiple characters and, like Godblind, it has viewpoints from both sides of the fight, so to speak. There are characters you will sympathise with, characters you dislike and characters who make such idiotic choices it messes with the whole balance of the world (yes, Enet, I’m looking at you). All of the POV characters are interesting in their own way, even the ones I want to end up dying painful deaths.

I know other reviews will talk a lot about the representation in The Stone Knife, so I will keep it brief but Stephens does something I like in novels where it is completely normalised. I love reading diverse stories but I don’t like it when the characters are shoved into a spotlight so everyone can praise the author for including them (see The Toll by Neal Shusterman). In The Stone Knife, it feels normal, the characters aren’t just their representation, they are characters in their own right and they have more to their personalities. I like that Lilla and Tayan are married. So often, you spend whole books series watching two characters fall in love but you never get to see their relationship afterwards so it makes a nice change to have two characters at a different point and reading how that gives a different dynamic to their relationship. I also like that Xessa is deaf. I’m only partially deaf myself but it feels good to read a character who has a disability but she is still able to function as an integral part of the society and is not treated as an outcast. I hope I’m not coming across as ignorant about matters as important as diversity in books. I know what I’m trying to say but I don’t know if I’m making myself clear.

The Stone Knife has everything I have come to expect from an Anna Stephens novel. Morally grey characters who are doing what they think is best, either for their own interests or for the interests of the society they live in. It’s violent and bloody, but if you’ve read Godblind then that’s just par for the course at this point. The world is richly created and it feels different to anything I have ever read before in a fantasy novel. The characters are interesting and I enjoyed reading their stories. I did think the novel ended in a slightly strange place, it was a sort of cliff hanger but I think it could have ended slightly earlier and saved the ending for the next book. Other than that I don’t have any complaints about the story and I’m looking forward to what happens next.
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ARC provided by the publisher—Harper Voyager—in exchange for an honest review.

4.5/5 stars

This was amazing. Great characters, lethal actions, and so much bloodbath; a vampire reading this book would probably find their thirst satiated.

This is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me; I am thoroughly impressed by what Stephens has crafted here. Her debut, Godblind, was a good grimdark novel that I liked, but The Stone Knife? Oh boy, it was absolutely bloody and magnificent. I personally think that Stephens’ skill as a storyteller has improved significantly since the release of her debut. That said, I've heard from many readers that the rest of the Godblind Trilogy has indeed displayed Stephens' growth as a storyteller already, so it could just be that I’m missing on that actions. And honestly speaking, after reading The Stone Knife, I would be crazy to disregard that notion.

The Stone Knife is the first book in The Songs of the Drowned trilogy by Anna Stephens, and the story takes place in the forests of Ixachipan. For generations, nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs—their endless, magical music undefeated. And now, only two free tribes—Tokoban and Yalotlan—remain in Ixachipan, and they won’t submit to the Empire’s total domination. To make the struggle even worse for the tribes, the Empire has the Drowned—monstrous and scaled predators with their own magical music—at their side. I loved this book; it’s a different sort of beast from Godblind, and I am so damn pleased that Stephens has decided to write this rather than continue writing in the Godblind world. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m sure if she has decided to write more books that takes place in the same world as her previous series, it would be great as well, but there’s something about authors writing a new series in a new world that always excites me. This is a vicious tale about gods, monsters, love, loyalty, friendship, faith, and freedom.

“That’s what it sounded like. 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. That’s what the songs of the Drowned sound like.”

To me, one of the most noticeable differences between Godblind and The Stone Knife is the longevity of their chapters. In Godblind, Stephens uses very short chapters to prioritized fast-pacing, actions, and dialogue. The Stone Knife, however, is the other way around; chapters are longer, and Stephens focuses on characterizations and world-building first before filling the pages with blood. My preferences are definitely lean towards what she did in The Stone Knife. Although it took me around a quarter of the book to navigate and acclimate myself to the names and terms, I never felt bored because I found the setting and the intricate world-building—inspired by ancient Central American civilization—to be so refreshing. Also, there’s no info-dump; the majority of the unique names and terminologies are understood/learned through the context of the narrative, and she did it so well. Most importantly, the characters and their characterizations was terrifically written.

“ “I don’t ever want to be like that, she thought suddenly. I don’t want to have killed so many that it means nothing. I don’t want to be dead behind the eyes or in the heart.”

The story in The Stone Knife is told through the perspectives of seven characters—Xessa, Tayan, Etne, Lilla, Pilos, Ilandeh, and The Singer. Guess what? I’m so invested in all of them. Excluding the fact that there’s already a goodest boy named Ossa aside, I think Stephens has successfully nailed a great job of personifying her many characters here. Either faith, love, or both drives the motivation of these main characters; I personally found them all to be well-realized. It’s not often I praise romance subplots, and there were two or three romance subplots here, but I have to give my praises to Stephens on this aspect; the character’s love and fear for their loved ones were so palpable. Additionally, the disability and LGBT representation in the characters also felt totally genuine. Simply put, I loved reading all the character’s POV. But please do not let these lead you into thinking this is a romance book; oh god, this violent book will color your imagination red.

“You’ve broken the song and doomed us all, Great Octave. All that comes next, you have caused. All of it.”

Stephens has outdone herself on the creation of characters of Etne and the Singer. Yes, my favorite POV characters to read were Etne, The Singer, and Tayan. If you’ve read this book, or about to, before you call me deprave of sanity for claiming Etne as my favorite POV to read, let me first clarify that I don’t love her character; I doubt she was ever created to be likable anyway. However, her POV chapters were unputdownable, crucial, fierce, and engaging; I consider it a sign of a great storyteller when they’re able to make me THIS compelled to read an unlikable character’s storyline, and that’s what Stephens effectively did with Etne and her development with The Singer. The gradual changes in the tone of The Singer’s introspection were just spectacular.

As I mentioned, this is a pretty brutal book; this isn’t really grimdark, in my opinion, but the violence enacted is full-throttle. If you’re averse to reading much blood and gore, I suggest you read a different book or wait until you’re in the right mood for it. Stephens’ actions are merciless, and she unquestionably excels at keeping the intensity and emotions of each scene intact. Peace negotiations and dialogues ended up being some of the most pulse-pounding scenes in the book. I sometimes find that the loudest volume can be found in the sound of silence, and there were many moments in the book where that voiceless moments amplified the tension so much. The battle scenes were mostly spread out here and there throughout the entire book, but in the final 15%, Stephens totally pull out all the stops; the unleashed insane chaos were impossible to untamed (haha), and I can’t help but found myself intoxicated by the power of the blood song.

“My song will drive them to ruin. Those who live will do so in the agony of their wrongdoing. I am the song and it is bloody. I am the song and it is war.”

The crimson macabre sequences demonstrated by Stephens in The Stone Knife will stay with its readers for a long time. Whether it’s peaceful tranquility or ruthless bloodshed, the scarlet claw in the narrative had a visceral grip on the reader’s emotions and attention. I highly urge readers of epic fantasy with a darker tone and grey morality to join the rank of the violent Melody with me. I utterly look forward to the next Chorus in the series. Harper Voyager, if you’re reading this, promote this book; you have something special in your catalog here.

Official release date: 26th November 2020

You can pre-order the book from: Amazon UK | Amazon US | Book Depository (Free shipping)

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

You can find this and the rest of my reviews at Novel Notions
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The Stone Knife, book one of The Songs of the Drowned, takes place in a whole new world that is inspired by ancient South American civilisations. It is the story of the Tokob tribe as they try to survive in the face of a relentless enemy hell-bent on colonising their world, and the monsters that live in their water-sources and sing people to their bloody deaths. It is also the story of the Pechaqueh as they try to bring the magic of their leader's Song to the tribes around them, whilst those tribes murder their gods... As one should come to expect from Stephens' writing, things are never black or white.

The opening to this story of siren-like song magic lulls you in - it's exposition, but it doesn't feel like a dump as it's a tale being woven. Natural additions of the voice's world filter through with no background information, which gives the narrative a sense of authenticity, that this voice is rooted in its place and sings with authority. Just when we feel at peace within this tale, the voice takes a sharp juxtapositional twist in tone and it's a strong indication of the character's personality. And what a character she'll turn out to be; Xessa quickly insinuated herself into my heart and is now up there with the likes of Tara and Fell Noon as one of my all-time favourite characters. Stephens brings her monsters into play promptly, we certainly do not have to wait long for the trilogy's eponymous creatures. And they are CREEPY. And violent.

'Mottled brown and green like the riverbed, thin ribbons of hair on its head like weed, it stretched a clawed hand towards Xessa...'

I found myself immediately convinced of their threat. Our protagonist appears adept and experienced, and yet proves to be human and vulnerable. It is a dark and dangerous opening to a story, setting the scene for what seems a desperate, eat-or-be-eaten world. It's softened by our protagonist's canine companion, and her reflections on her society of historians and teachers, of people with specific and individual roles to play. And so in just a few short pages, Stephens introduces us to her new world in a succinct and impactful manner.

Water was life and breath and plenty, and water was death and pain and fear, held in a balance like day and night, sun and moon. Xessa was a thief, stealing from the balance without offering anything in return except her sweat, her fear, her blood. One day, perhaps, her life.

As with the Godblind trilogy, Stephens treats us to more multiple points of views in this new trilogy - seven in total, and from either side of the conflict. Stephens is relentless in her ability to tell every side of the story and blur the distinctions between the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys', certainly more so here than with Godblind. The first three chapters, excluding the brief opener, are all from the same tribe, so when we enter into the perspective of someone who up until that point we'd been told was the enemy, I found myself thinking ah, classic Stephens... There is no right or wrong. No good or bad. We simply have people existing as themselves in their world, firm in their belief that they are in the right, that they follow the true faith. Context, as ever, is key and that is a gift for us, a step removed. This is such an accurate portrayal of humanity - that of the 'bad guys' not seeing themselves as being the 'bad guys' - and one that seems safe to say is Stephens modus operandi.

Speaking of representation, I had expected to come across diversity in The Stone Knife, knowing its importance to Stephens. However, I wasn't prepared for just how perfectly Stephens embraces it here. Xessa is deaf, and Stephens shows us so many little ways in which the character processes details instead that it comes across as a very different perspective, already showing me things I would not normally have considered.

Xessa eased herself onto her feet to approach the river when a double thump like a heartbeat shivered up through the soles of her bare feet... The dog jumped again, landing back feet, front feet... his throat rippling as he barked and barked.

Treated with equal subtlety and nuance, Stephens' approach to gender and sexuality is seamless - there are no labels used. We don't get told the sex of a person until personal pronouns are used; no awkward, assumption-based statements like "the female warrior". Likewise with sexuality, there is quite simply the person the character loves or is attracted to - no mention of whether they are 'gay', or 'lesbian' or 'bisexual', or 'straight'. No mention of only being interested in the one or the other. No judgement. It felt so natural to read characters in this way, so refreshing. We can imagine worlds bursting with magic and fantastic creatures, or worlds lightyears away from our own, and I felt like finally I am reading a world in which love is love.

I guess what's important to take from everything I've said so far is that Stephens has created a world which feels so real. So obviously a secondary, fantasy world, and yet so obviously authentic and grounded. Stephens' writing style of threading her worldbuilding through references that are unfamiliar but obvious in their context makes for a subtle means of creating an utterly believable world.

There are a number of similarities between this world and story and that of the Godblind trilogy. Stephens' magic system is again heavily linked to belief, faith, and ancestors. Magic is gifted through gods and spirits. As well as this, Stephens' writing still has that visceral quality that became something of a hallmark in Godblind. You can expect violence and gore from The Stone Knife, but again, it doesn't overpower the story. The characters are very much what drives this story, and although there may be pain awaiting them, and plenty of twists, there is still hope and love that abounds.

These similarities make this story recognisably Stephens' handiwork, and yet this story is a clear progression of her growth and evolution as a writer. The Stone Knife is a story that you will lose yourself in, breathless in its heady depths. So many times I found myself scared to read on, fearful for what Stephens, a notorious heart-breaker, would do to these new, innocent, utterly relatable characters. So many moments, despite knowing this author's treachery, I found myself reeling from a new revelation. This is a powerful, dark, and beautiful song, that's left me open-armed and ready for the next.
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This book is SO GOOD! Really well written  and I was hooked from the start. Cant wait to get my signed edition from Goldsboro
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