Review: The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley

Posted by DarkChaplain at 4/09/2017
Merciless. Murderer. Monster. He has been called many names in his time.
Built for war and nothing else, he has witnessed every shade of violence humans know, and he has wrought his own masterpieces with their colours. He cared once, perhaps, but far too long ago. He is bound to his task, dead to the chaos he wreaks for his masters.

Now, he has a new master to serve and a new war to endure. In the far reaches of the Realm, Hartlund tears itself in two over coin and crown. This time he will fight for a boy king and a general bent on victory.
Beneath it all he longs for change. For something to surprise him. For an end to this cycle of warfare.
Every fighter has a last fight. Even one made of stone.
This one was supposed to be out... about a week and a half ago. Alas, things really didn't go as planned in March, what with five different flavors of awful to deal with.
I finally managed to just sit down and finish the self-imposed job to read & review this book, and now I actually feel worse for taking this long. Sorry for the delay, Ben!
The Story:
"Merciless. Murderer. Monster. He has been called many names in his time.
Built for war and nothing else, he has witnessed every shade of violence humans know, and he has wrought his own masterpieces with their colours. He cared once, perhaps, but far too long ago. He is bound to his task, dead to the chaos he wreaks for his masters.

Now, he has a new master to serve and a new war to endure. In the far reaches of the Realm, Hartlund tears itself in two over coin and crown. This time he will fight for a boy king and a general bent on victory.
Beneath it all he longs for change. For something to surprise him. For an end to this cycle of warfare.
Every fighter has a last fight. Even one made of stone."

Disclaimer
The author contacted me via email to ask for/offer a review copy. I accepted the request and have not regretted it. Since then I've also ordered a print copy for my shelf off Amazon.

The Review:
The Heart of Stone is already a strong contender for my favorite books in 2017. Not just because it is still early in the year, mind you, but because it had an incredible blend of emotion, action, philosophy and compellingly complex characters. I'm honestly still amazed by how human a story built around a stone golem could end up being.

Task, our Golem, is thrown amidst a kingdom's civil war between royalists, the Truehards, and the capitalist factions under the Last Fading. He is beholden to his master, who turns out to be a very petty man with ego problems. He is to follow orders and slay the enemy combatants indiscriminately, constantly biting his tongue and trying not to care. He isn't like other golems, of course. He thinks, he feels, he can even be genuinely funny. He is, as much as you can say it about Golems, a freak of nature. He is used to the grind of war, the stares of fear, the orders and cruelty of his masters. That doesn't mean he is fine with any of them. He struggles to bend the rules a little bit, and despite his better judgement, ends up befriending a young stable girl at the Truehards' camp.

The girl, Lesky, was the anchor of the entire story. She is bright, clever, even wise sometimes. She brings relief to what could otherwise be a pretty dark story. Not that it isn't dark, but Lesky's character brings a degree of hope to it all, and her growing friendship with Task, despite all odds, makes not just the Golem care, but the reader as well. I loved how her and Task's dynamic gave color to the entire book. It was touching to see them interact, both making me smile and close my eyes in regret during the sadder moments. The novel may be about a long-running civil war, threats of a world war looming, Task's rebellion against the magic binding him, but at the core it is a story about a Golem and his unlikely best friend, and how friendship can change your entire outlook and give you strength.

On the other side we get introduced to the Last Fading's counter weapon, the Knight of Dawn Alabast Flint. Slayer of the last dragon, Alabast has turned to more.. dubious pasttimes. He's a regular at whorehouses, borrowing money from all the wrong people, an alcoholic, and gets recruited to slay a Golem while down on his luck. He attempts to escape his bonds and wiggle out of his sheer impossible quest. He offers a neat contrast to task, who has mostly resigned himself to silence and grim acceptance of his role. Both of them have their duties, both are forced into them, yet both long for ways to escape them and be free. Alabast proves a compelling counterpoint to Task in more ways than one, and the comedy he brings to the book isn't to be underestimated.

The last of the characters I want to specifically talk about is Ellia Frayne, councillor to the royalists and zealot of the Mission, the realm's religious authority. She is a highly complex character with her own goals and schemes, and it is clear from very early on that she's taking the war into her own hands with subtle nudges to both Task and his master. I won't spoil her role in the story, but damn me if I didn't loathe and love her for her place here. She could go from relatable to appalling very easily, and it wasn't so easy to figure out where she stood on things. In many ways, she is also the glue holding the different factions in the book together, allowing the reader a better understanding of the ongoing politics in the kingdom.

The Heart of Stone is, in many ways, about the final months of a civil war that has lasted almost a decade. But more than that, it uses the war and the various injustices committed throughout as a vehicle for the characters to grow and connect. The war isn't shown gratuitously; it isn't glorified or the point of the book. Instead it offers context for everything, and rather than play out all of Task's fights in the book for the reader's benefit, Galley often chose to just depict the aftermath, the state of mind of the Golem and lowly soldiers, the carnage and cleanup duties. In my opinion, he nailed the horrors of war and the ways in which such a long-lasting conflict can ruin the environment it is held in. There is no call to arms here, but a clear message of avoiding war at all costs, because little good will ever come of it. I felt it was a very mature way to depict war and one I enjoyed a great deal for the way it was executed.

However, the book starts off relatively slow. I liked the pace, personally, and how it held back a lot of top-down information from Task - and by extension the reader. The first half feels very personal and focused as a result. Task's role in the world, the war, the Truehards, is explored in great depth, as is his friendship with Lesky. There are introductions for Alabast and his recruitment by the Last Fading. Ellia is seen scheming here and there, and Task slowly shifts his mindset towards hope.
But only in the second half does the overarching plot really kick off. Things start spiralling out of control as Task comes to doubt and think more about his place and the Truehards and Fading. It gets progressively more exciting as more is revealed. I think limiting exposure for the most part to what Task himself can witness was clever, but I can see why some readers may not be fully engaged by the early sections. The problem, if it is one at all, solves itself, however.

One nitpick I have is that a lot of the underlying causes for the war were so long in the past, the reader has to rely on reports from witnesses. The novel tells of various atrocities in brief terms, like at campfires, but we don't actually get to see them committed. As a result there is a lot of (intended) ambiguity in who is right and who is wrong, whether the Truehards are righteous or not. While it ends up giving pretty definitive answers on almost everything later on, I would have liked to get some slightly more visible evidence. The Mission especially, could have benefitted from a more active role. A lot is implied, but in the end The Heart of Stone doesn't let its focus slip too far from Task and co.
For this book in particular, I liked that approach. I liked the focus. But I'd be damned if I didn't want to see more of this world. Galley crafted something very interesting here, with its own mythology and various kingdoms and their dilemmas. Even if this is a standalone novel with a clear end point, I would love to see the author take this world and tell more stories within it, whether sketching out past events or building further into the future.

In the end though everything slots together neatly like the stone plates making up the Golem's body. The character dynamics, the war, the wider world, the rising emotions, they all worked to create a memorable story with a lot of heart. There were plenty of sections that could just get you thinking. There was humor, tension, fear and anger in it. Galley managed to change my mind on various characters as things progressed, which I take as a big achievement.
Despite the personal delays I experienced in finishing this novel, it was always a joy to go back for more. With it being a stand-alone novel, I'm afraid there won't be anything to come back to next year, like if it was a trilogy and that makes me somewhat sad. I've grown to love Task, Lesky and even the infamous Knight of Dawn.

There not being any clear sequels makes it very easy to recommend, however. I know I'm not the only one who gets annoyed with the wait between installments in a series, or needs a change of pace sometimes. I'd honestly recommend The Heart of Stone if you'd like to read something more grounded with a clear start and end point. No cliffhangers, no padding, but fully satisfying in its conclusion. For that, I already chalk it down as one of my favorite reads of the year, and come the new year, I'll be sure to recommend it again. Ben Galley's put himself on my list of authors to look into further, as well.

The Heart of Stone on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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