Book: “Song of Blood and Stone” by L. Penelope
Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, May 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher
Book Description: Orphaned and alone, Jasminda lives in a land where cold whispers of invasion and war linger on the wind. Jasminda herself is an outcast in her homeland of Elsira, where her gift of Earthsong is feared. When ruthless soldiers seek refuge in her isolated cabin, they bring with them a captive–an injured spy who threatens to steal her heart.
Jack’s mission behind enemy lines to prove that the Mantle between Elsira and Lagamiri is about to fall nearly cost him his life, but he is saved by the healing Song of a mysterious young woman. Now he must do whatever it takes to save Elsira and it’s people from the True Father and he needs Jasminda’s Earthsong to do it. They escape their ruthless captors and together they embark on a perilous journey to save Elsira and to uncover the secrets of The Queen Who Sleeps.
Thrust into a hostile society, Jasminda and Jack must rely on one another even as secrets jeopardize their bond. As an ancient evil gains power, Jasminda races to unlock a mystery that promises salvation.
The fates of two nations hang in the balance as Jasminda and Jack must choose between love and duty to fulfill their destinies and end the war.
Review: I was super excited when I received this in the mail. For one, look at that gorgeous cover? I’m not usually a fan of covers with models, but I’ll make an exception for this one. Beyond that, I was intrigued by the premise and am always stoked when I can find fantasy fiction featuring a diverse cast of characters. And while there were some slower moments, overall, I really enjoyed this read!
The world is literally split in two by an impenetrable magic force field that has kept two warring civilizations separate for as long as anyone can remember, with only brief breaks of warfare every few centuries when the field falters. On one side, Elsira, a technologically advanced civilization has risen, longing for the day when their sleeping Queen will again awaken. On the other side, Lagamiri, a nation full of magic wielders who can control the elements, but who are ruled by a tyrannical and vicious God King. The prejudices are strong on each side. Jasminda, a daughter of both races, has grown up in a country where her skin marks her as the enemy, as an Earthsinger. She’s kept to herself these long years, finding isolation to be her best bet for a quiet life. That is until she meets Jack, an Elsiran soldier with his own secrets, but who also shows her that there are those out there who see her as more than just an “other.”
I loved the world-building in this story. The idea of magic users vs. technology isn’t anything new, but what really added to this take on it was combining it with other prejudices, on both sides, and the fear and ignorance that can come from these sorts of long-standing built up generalizations about people. Throughout the story, we are also given glimpses into the ancient history of this world, and this is really what solidified the concept for me. Through these, we see that the world wasn’t always this way, and in fact many things had been turned on their heads. The origin story was compelling and each chapter was intro’d with little parables from this almost forgotten time. I particularly enjoyed how each parable loosely connected to the happenings of each chapter.
Through this history and the current situation, Jasminda and Jack both portray different roles and experiences of segregation and prejudice. Jasminda has lived a life of not belonging. She’s grown up in a country that judges her for her skin color and her power, but it is her home. I enjoyed how much this fact was hit home. Just because she looked like those on the other side of the wall, didn’t mean she would be any more welcome there or that that should in any way be her place, based on only one part of her being. Jack, as an advocate and an example of a more tolerant and enlightened individual, still must learn to understand the true battles that those like Jasminda face. His idealism is often based in naivety. But through him, Jasminda, too, learns that not everyone is as they seem, and that there may be a way forward for both peoples together.
The story also had a strong through line on the experiences of refugees, and the terrible choices they face. Here, many Lagamiri secretly cross the border, hoping to escape the terror that is their homeland. This choice isn’t only leaving behind all they have known, but is to willing walk into a country knowing they will face a different kind of persecution there. They live in camps and face many injustices at the hands of a struggling nation looking for someone to blame. And yet, this is still a better choice than the horrors that wait back home.
For all of these positives, I did struggle with a few things. While the story took on some big concepts, giving detailed focus and attention to these challenges, I never quite felt connected to the story. Jasminda and Jack, while interesting protagonists, were each a little too perfect to feel real. They were just kind of…fine. I wasn’t hugely invested in their individual struggles, but happy to go along for the ride.
The story also isn’t helped out by a few strange choices with pacing and explanations for the magic system. The plot would zip through a few key moments, with very little clarity on what was actually taking place, and then suddenly move very slowly through other, more character-driven scenes. I think this is likely a show of where the author’s true interests and talents as a writer lie, but it makes for a rather bumpy reading experience.
Also, at different times, it felt like distances on the map changed drastically, or didn’t match with the expanse of the world that we’re told exists. It seemed, at times, that the entire country could be traveled in only a few hours, which doesn’t make sense given the references to geographical elements and the population that is hinted at. Further, while the magic system was interesting, I struggled to understand how it actually worked. For example, it was referenced several times that Earthsingers couldn’t kill with their magic, but could use the elements in every other way. But what does that actually look like? If they sent fire at someone, wouldn’t that still be killing with their magic? Or does it do nothing, and if that’s the case, then what power does that actually give them? I found it confusing, especially given the fact that this restriction was referenced more than once.
The romance, kind of like the two main characters, was also a bit too perfect. For all of theirs struggles, Jasminda and Jack’s love is never really the complicated or tragic “Romeo and Juliet” story that we’re promised. I enjoyed the romance, don’t get me wrong, but I think the misleading description played against it, in the end.
All in all, I very much enjoyed “Song of Blood and Stone.” It’s a great example of fantasy fiction tackling bigger topics like diversity, prejudice, and the challenges faced by refugees. However, there is a large focus on romance, so readers who don’t enjoy those elements might want to avoid this one, and the characters are also a bit flat.
Rating 7: Even with some missteps, would still recommend it based on the strengths of the challenges it addresses, especially set against an interesting fantasy backdrop.
“Song of Blood and Stone” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”
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