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Casting in Stone: A Novel of the Averraine Cycle Kindle Edition
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Like A Spell in the Country, Casting in Stone is told from the first person point of view of a tough and fierce female warrior in a medieval-esque land of castles, knights, and dangerous magic. Our hero is Caoimhe, an orphan with notoriously ill luck and a penchant for killing. In a flashback we learn that she served as champion for a young duke named Einon during a period of power struggle and court intrigue in the town of Rhwyn. There were a lot of court intrigues in the story, and I regret to say that I couldn’t very well keep up with all of them. The main story was centered on Caoimhe’s investigation into a curse that she believes has been plaguing her, and the ways that the people around her manipulate her to keep her ignorant of the curse or help guide her to discovering the source of the curse.
There’s some action in the story: descriptions of one-on-one battles between champions, descriptions of skirmishes against feral supernatural wolves, battle against wicked supernatural entities. With the descriptions of fighting and the daily routines of being a soldier in this kind of grim pre-industrial fantasy world, the author spares no detail. The weapons and processes and fighting techniques are elaborated in a way that reveals how much time Smith researched her source material, creating a very believable setting. This was the case in A Spell in the Country as well, and I’m again impressed and inspired by it. In my own fantasy work, I would do well to imitate that commitment to research. That being said, there were long stretches of the book where things moved slowly, and where I really wanted to see more things happening. Where the story was interesting, it was great, but there were stretches when it dragged on.
Caoimhe's story is revealed gradually in flashbacks of her life. Her grandfather was the only relative who cared for her until her little sister Meryn comes along. Even her life with her little sister is marred by horrible circumstances, but I don't want to give away too much of the story.
Caoimhe is a fascinating woman, tough as a warrior must be, yet always dogged by the curse on her life. The rest of the characters are also engaging. Be prepared for a lot of swashbuckling in an excellent read.
While the narrative is captivating and highly entertaining, it is in language and storytelling that Smith really excels. The ease with which she conveys complex ideas and situations, with which she anchors the setting through character voice and experiences alone (there’s very little descriptions needed as the language itself evoke the world and scenes), and the ease with which she sets up events and foreshadows plot is downright impressive!
I could praise this book at length but will spare the reader the trouble and rather point out that Casting in Stone succeeded with me despite the odds; I have a bias against 1st person narratives AND against self-published books, finding the first awkward and limiting and the latter suffering from the lack of backing by a professional publishing, marketing & agency team, but CiS splintered my preconceptions and proved that not only can 1st person be rich and challenging, self-publishers can indeed break the mold and awe you with their books.
CiS is easily the best self-published book I’ve ever read, even beating many publishing house releases that I’ve encountered through the years. In fact, a major publisher should pick this book up right now and launch a big campaign to place it on best seller lists and on the shelves of every bookshop in the free world!
There, my praise is done and now I ought to at least try to offer some critique so that this becomes a proper review rather than just a fanboy rant. I struggled to come up with something to criticize but in the end found three issues I think worthy of mentioning; one an issue about something in the book and then two issues with things that are not.
First, the prologue. I did not understand this at all and it left me confused and distracted. The prologue points to a major plot twist in the book, something that isn’t resolved until around 130 pages later (of 191 pages in all). Even at that point in the story, going back to re-read the prologue and pondering over it, I had trouble understanding exactly what goes on there; I just don’t get it. Now, it is entirely possible that I’m just slow and stupid but for me the prologue did not work at all. The prologue is, however, only half a page long and quickly forgotten when you read on to the awesome that starts at the very first page of the story. In the end, my prologue problems did not have any impact on my enjoyment of the book but I have to find something to pick at in this review, so there you go.
Secondly, the book has no map. Now, CiS is a fairly localized tale that doesn’t really need spatial help from a map, but I personally like to have a visual cue to ground the story in my head. Again, CiS doesn’t need a map, but I sort of do.
Thirdly, the book could do with a cast list appendix. The reader encounters a lot of people as the story evolves and I frequently got them mixed up or just plainly forgot who some of them were. This too was not a major problem for the story, as it is written in 1st person and all non-protagonist characters impact the tale only in what they do to or mean to the protagonist anyway; 1st person narratives makes side-characters into story functions rather than independent individuals and it is therefore not too much of a problem when you can’t remember who’s who. (“Who’s this person challenging Caoimhe to a duel? Oh, who cares; Caoimhe is doing combat! Wheee!”).
Yeah… so… I love this book. Go buy it now, folks! :)