Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Song of Blood and Stone was originally an indie publication in 2015 at a much shorter length (around 260 pages). After it was picked up by St. Martin's Press, it was built out into a fuller novel, now around 380 pages) and given a beautiful graphical treatment with a gorgeous cover, a map and chapter header images that match the folklore quotes that begin each chapter. I wish the book had a clearer tone, however. It seeks to balance many elements, and the result didn't resonate with me as a reader.
Set in a fantasy world in which the neighboring regions of Elsira and Lagrimar are separated by a magical mantle over a mountainous region, we find they are separated by more than just magic and mountains. They are separated by skill and by race. In Elsira, dark-skinned people and those with magic (Earthsingers) are regarded with suspicion. In Lagrimar, dark-skinned people are the norm and though the people often had Earthsongs, they are expected to surrender their magic to the True Father, something of a fanatical dictator, in tribute. The world has a Western and steampunkish feel in some ways, there are telephones and airships and radios, but these are early versions of all these. But there is also the fairy-tale palace with a handsome prince garbed in jewels and robes of office.
Jasminda ul-Sarifor, our heroine, is a kindhearted Earthsinger. Descended from a Lagrimari father and an Elsiran mother, she is dark-skinned like the Lagrimari and has only weak to average Earthsong, unlike her father, now missing, who was a strong Earthsinger. Jasminda's mother died years before and her father and brothers went looking for something in the mountains around their valley and never came home. (Those would be the same mountains separating Elsira and Lagrimar.) The story opens with Jasminda receiving a letter from her maternal grandfather, who is offering her a small fortune to disavow all relationship to his family, including her now-dead mother, because he is running for political office in Elsira and doesn't want the embarrassment of having to explain his beautiful black granddaughter to anyone during the campaign or after. Conveniently, the Elsiran tax bureau had only recently detected that Jasminda's family home, in a small valley ringed by mountains, hasn't been on the tax rolls and they are now demanding a fortune back taxes, 20,000 pieces or the property will be put up for auction. Jasminda, who is eking out a living as a goat farmer and who has no money to her name other than the pittance she makes selling her Earthsong blessed salves and balms, is sorely tempted to take her grandfather's offer of 40,000 pieces. As she struggles with her decision while walking home from the nearest town's post office, she encounters a wounded man on the roadside. He is fleeing Lagrimari troops, who have pursued him into Elsira to return him to Lagrimar. Jack is an Elsiran spy, sung to look dark-skinned when in fact a typical fair-skinned redheaded Elsiran. The magic wore off, he was outed as a spy and injured during his escape. The encounter culminates, after a bit of a wind in the road, with Jasminda holed up in her cabin with six Lagrimari soldiers, and Jack, as they weather a storm. Jasminda is almost raped, she is rescued by Jack, four of six soldiers are wounded or killed and Jack and Jasminda escape. Thus, a romance is born.
The tropes are strong with this one, readers. For Jack is more powerful than he seems to be, thanks to the untimely airship accident that kills his half-brother. He will rescue Jasminda several times, just as she rescued him at the start of the story. Jasminda is called upon to rise above her weak Earthsong. The embattled history of Elsira and Lagrimar is explained to her in visions. A queen rises. Peace is sought and found. All in a pastiche magical world that has a Western feel but elements of Sub-Saharan African folklore in chapter headers and a heroine with a North African sounding name. There are also the issues of the race relations and the interracial relationship, which feel unsophisticated in their handling at times, though a revelation at the end of the book was at least a positive point. A romance and fantasy mixed-genre can always risk predictability, and from the outset of the book you know that Jasminda and Jack will be "together after adversity." What I didn't feel was a depth in this novel. Penelope has pulled together a pastiche of elements any one or two of which might have been enough to build a novel around. But by mixing so many elements together and not building any of them out fully, I felt I was reading disparate things sewn into a crazy quilt. It's warm but it isn't well-turned out. The folklore quotes at the head of each chapter sometimes foretell events in a chapter but many times the allusion to the events is so liminal as to be invisible. I compare similar use in books by say, Nnedi Okorafor, and feel interested that Penelope wanted to give us these quotes and parables but wonder why she didn't develop more with their actual relationship to Jasminda's world and the Elsiran and Lagrimari culture? Honestly, there were times in this book where I felt like I was reading a Disney Princess met Firefly Joss Whedon mashup.
All in all, I'm not sorry I picked up Song of Blood and Earth, and I'd probably make an effort to read the next book in the Earthsinger Chronicles to see where Penelope goes from here. Rewriting a first novel for a mainstream publisher can be a challenge, so it's possible that in a brand new second book, Penelope will have greater freedom in developing the story of Jasminda further. I'll look forward to that.
I received a Digital Review Copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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