Smoke and Stone – Michael R. Fletcher

About the Book

After a cataclysmic war of the gods, the last of humanity huddles in Bastion, a colossal ringed city. Beyond the outermost wall lies endless desert haunted by the souls of all the world’s dead.

Trapped in a rigid caste system, Nuru, a young street sorcerer, lives in the outer ring. She dreams of escape and freedom. When something contacts her from beyond the wall, she risks everything and leaps at the opportunity. Mother Death, a banished god seeking to reclaim her place in Bastion’s patchwork pantheon, has found her way back into the city.

Akachi, born to the wealth and splendour of Bastion’s inner rings, is a priest of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt. A temple-trained sorcerer, he is tasked with bringing peace to the troublesome outer ring. Drawn into a dark and violent world of assassins, gangs, and street sorcerers, he battles the spreading influence of Mother Death in a desperate attempt to save Bastion.

The gods are once again at war.

511 pages (paperback)
Author’s webpage
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I edited this book, so take that into consideration when you read what follows.

I don’t typically talk much about the books I edit. There’s a reason for that. I feel like once I’ve broken through the reader/editor barrier, I’m too close. That being said, sometimes I edit a book that amazes me so much, I just need to shout about it a bit.

This is one of those.

Fletcher made it onto my radar a few years ago, when someone basically said, “If you like dark fantasy and you haven’t read Fletcher’s stuff, you’re missing out.” Since then, I’ve read a few of his books and listened to one audiobook and I keep coming back for more. There are a few things that stay similar throughout his work, though. He’s dark. He always has a really unique world, and a magic system that matches. What I like most about his books, though, is how tight and well-crafted his prose (well, everything really) is. There’s never a wasted word. Never a sentence that doesn’t need to be right where it is.

Smoke and Stone is no different. In fact, regarding prose. They are exceptionally tight, and he wrote with an eye toward allowing his readers to not only enjoy the book, but to move through it as quickly as possible. That’s not to say that this is an easy book to read. There are a lot of layers and depth here, a lot of nuggets sprinkled throughout that subtly lead you along the path, but it is saying that Fletcher doesn’t want you bogged down in things that don’t matter. He’s narrowed his focus, and his focus is incredibly tight. This makes what is there, that much more memorable, with an impact that will just leave you staggering at various points.

The bonus with that is it allows you to really get into the mindsets of the characters he introduces to you. Things are not always what they seem, but while he deliberately exposes his characters’ secrets, and also shows the depth, and layers of the world he’s created. Reveals, exploration, and moments of understanding are timed perfectly. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before — trust me — but the way he writes will really allow you to appreciate the unique qualities of all of this book in ways that you probably wouldn’t, otherwise.

The plot is relentless. Along with his focused prose, his plot is perfectly measured. Never a dull moment. Never a scene that doesn’t lead you toward the poignant end. Never a moment that doesn’t matter. The book churns determinedly through this hardscrabble world, never shying away from uncomfortable situations or plenty of violence, and it takes you along with it because, quite honestly, it’s just as addictive as the drug-based magic system he employs.

The real beauty is in the details, in those tiny flourishes that he never overlooks in favor of the grander whole. The relationships that form, the pasts that drive both main point-of-view characters, the incidents that impact their current decisions, the effects of all these drugs, the positives and negatives of just about every situation they find themselves in, as well as the magic system. Everything is covered, and while there aren’t always flashing lights and signs that say, “LOOK AT THIS” the fact that sometimes these details are just sort of dropped in makes them somehow both more powerful, and more real.

So, aside from all that, what else do I want you to know about this book?

It’s unapologetic. It will make you uncomfortable. It might even offend you. Please don’t let that stop you. Art shouldn’t be comfortable. Good art should be the exact opposite, and this book delivers.

This is, in my humble estimation, the best book Fletcher has written yet. If you’re a fan of dark themes, of unique twists, of the relentless deployment of story, then you need to give this a read. While it is full of so many good qualities I mentioned in this blog post, it is also shockingly, stunningly human, and that’s what makes everything he’s done work so well. It’s not just a great story, with great writing, and great execution, Smoke and Stone is held together by the glue of the human experience. It’s not always graceful, it’s not always comfortable, but it is absolutely unforgettable.

Read it.

5/5 stars


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