Angus Macallan’s The Gates of Stone

The religion centering on the Martyr is such a shoddy and obvious reference to Christianity that I cannot help but think that the likes of C.S. Lewis and Phillip Pullman would have a right to roll their eyes and comment about subtlety. Indeed, in pages 3 and 4 an image is described as pinned to a tree with arms outstretched, leaving the obvious reference to a cross there for the reader to clearly reflect upon. This is not a promising opening, as it’s too straightforward for how serious the novel seems to take itself, such religious parallelism rarely working when on the nose even in proper satire. Katerina, heir to the throne, finds herself stifling laughs at every aspect of this religion at the beginning, her own somewhat more Norse style religion feeling less ridiculous in her eyes. The narrative is third person, and the reader is led to expect shallow religious parody.

Katerina is being married off as part of an alliance, and in truth seems rather bored with the matter. She sees it as a waste of time, and a delay before she becomes a ruler in her own right. She also notes southern climates have much more in the way of gold, and proves she knows something of the costs of keeping troops in the process. The story goes on to note that ” he had deliberately set hope to win his affection and loyalty by asking his advice… and flirting a little with him.” And also noting that she had decided ” he would never do as a long-term lover” in a combination that calls to mind the out-of-fashion femme fatale more than anything else (page 8). This is an odd choice for a 16 year old girl in a book published in 2019. Indeed seeing a character like this in an newer fantasy was something of a surprise. The fact she killed the man she just married less so.

The second chapter introduces a second lead in Arjun, called Jun, who seems significantly more sympathetic. He is depicted as somewhat elites, doing his duty even so, at least to a degree. His setting is more tropical, with the heat and bamboo being mentioned quickly. He soon finds his indolent thoughts interrupted by an attack upon his home, and he is ill prepared but tries to be brave and come forward to help fight it. He sees his fathers sword is magic as predicted, but also sees that this fight isn’t going well and his father is dead. Understanding the implications of this Jun panics and runs.

This is a surprisingly sympathetic moment, given that moments of cowardice cane be yard to make anything but vile, however in comparison to our first lead it serves to be more obviously so. As the book goes on the reader is given more reason for sympathy towards Katerina, however the failure to explain in more detail the backstory, and why escape without luring a man into bed to be killed was not an option, the idea of this character as someone the reader will root for is unbalanced at best.

The third chapter introduces the refer to Farhan. He wants to start what is basically the trans Atlantic slave trade, and thus quickly loses any sympathy the reader has gained. Really, while it has become fashionable to have darker characters as viewpoints and focuses in fantasy fiction, a slave seems an unusual choice. The fact that that’s not his ultimate goal is hardly used to absolve him.

After this we return to Katerina, and the aftermath of her murder. And from this point chapters rotate, giving both forward movement and additional backstory. A plot quickly unfolds wherein the woman wants her fathers kingdom, the prince wants to avenge his, and another prepares a complicated way to start a war. We see a slight ninja stereotype commit an admittedly modified seppuku on page 78, and the reader is reminded of the too close Christianity parallel at the start of the book. Other points of view are occasionally introduced such as an antagonist in the form of an angry old sorcerer out together seven items of power.

Our leads aside, the book has a lot going for it, with descriptions lovingly laid about the different locales, both those that the chapter’s focus characters are familiar with and not. Indeed the detailed descriptions of everything from palaces to cathedrals, tropical cities and bizarre abominable incidents, paint a clear picture that can, at times, drift into the readers mind casually, rather than halting the story in its tracks.

The tone is quite interesting usually similar to many other high fantasy novels with moments like the opening of chapter 41 featuring surprisingly casual language such as “kick their heels.” Furthermore with very few exceptions ( such as a common narcotic) real world terms are used rather than thinking up variance on a buffalo win a buffalo would do. This makes the text further easy to penetrate, though it occasionally leaves one surprised at the Casual tone of this third person story.

In addition while the first impressions of all of our leads are quite negative, a couple of them grow on the reader. The two Royals in particular seem to learn a great deal and their motivations come into sharper focus. Further each meet secondary characters who prove interesting such as members of outcast groups, old wizards, escaped slaves, and determined loyalist military men.

It also does a fairly good job of serving as the opening to a series, resolving the plot without removing most of the elements which would prove especially useful in layer tales. There is a tragic death, though not the expected one, and it might fit into the uncomfortable “Kill your lesbians” trend some worry about, although she is admittedly a character who comes into the story seeming mildly doomed. There is rape, both the threat of it and an actual event, and the latter is treated as horrible and it’s effect on the woman in question is explored, albeit briefly.

Overall, there is much to recommend. The book gets a rough start with an opening that is slightly off putting, however even in this a clear picture is painted in the readers mind. The characters are not drawn as unsympathetically as some first appear, and as a result The reader is drawn into them. That said, religious satire and parody do not play a great role, and as a result the use of the Martyr religion is still most unfortunate. Still, a rough start with reference to an obvious Christianity parallel that, in the end, I cannot help but think would have worked better in less focus or not pushed so quickly into the story when as yet it plays a comparatively small part.

(ACE Books Digital February 19, 2019, Paperback February 19, 2019)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.