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Review

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

AUTHOR’S WEBSITE: https://michaelrfletcher.com/
SERIES: City of Sacrifice
PUBLISHED: September 13, 2019 (Self-published)
PAGES: 437
GENRE: Grimdark Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

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Blurb

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.


Review

ALSO REVIEWED AT: Goodreads

Mother Death wanted to break the eternal city until nothing remained of the old ways but smoke and stone.

From beyond the realm of mankind the gods scheme. Father Death remains withdrawn in his sanctuary of the underworld, while the arrival of Mother Death at the towering walls of Bastion from the wasteland of the Bloody Desert marks the beginning of the end. A priest of many talents challenges a street sorcerer of great power, both whose strings are being pulled by their puppet masters. What’s believed to be a campaign for freedom from persecution may lead to absolute annihilation as the gods wage war once again.

Smoke and Stone is the newest ultra Grimdark title from the incomparable Michael R. Fletcher, and is a raw and visceral tale of abuse and vengeful gods. Its pages seep with the concept that rules of religion and society are created by man, and are therefore flawed. That those crushed under the boot of oppression are viciously blinded by a false sense of security, and will only be led to ruin. And those same that are victimized have the power to break down the walls of injustice, as only one voice is needed to spark a revolution. In all honesty, I never know what to expect when cracking open one of Fletcher’s novels, owing to the fact that blurbs aren’t capable of giving the work’s entirety its due. Smoke and Stone is no different in this regard, and not only were my expectations met, but completely surpassed with this brilliant initiation into the City of Sacrifice series.

Set in a unique and finely crafted world decimated by war, rich in both history and beliefs evocative of Mesoamerican culture, this story is suffused with ageless deities of endless monikers determined to topple the current structure of the pantheon. These renewed and ongoing battles between fickle gods threaten to trigger bloodshed between men, revealing well-kept secrets that will surely shatter the fabric of society. Devoted priesthoods and heretical assassins, savage street magic fueled by carefully formulated concoctions of narcotics and divine will, public sacrificial rituals to appease blood-thirsty gods, the worldbuilding in this book is both astonishing and impeccable.

Structure leads to stagnation. Control leads to abuse.

Bastion, the last remaining haven for humankind, is a sprawling concentric city miraculously constructed of a single stone. The gods inhabit the center, and each subsequent ring houses those of lesser wealth and importance. The Growers, known as Dirts to their “betters”, inhabit the largest and outermost ring, and are essentially the slaves of the community. They’re worked to the bone to produce food for those in the inner rings, and in return they’re fed, clothed, and given shelter – as scant as it all may be. This is the life they’ve been taught to know, all they’ve grown accustomed to, living in discomfort and fear. However, the acrid scent of rebellion drifts upon the warm and dusty winds. Surrounded by the Bloody Desert, where all manner of lost souls and demons and exiled gods lurk, the walls of Bastion are the only means of preventing perpetual misery and death.

In addition to meticulously superb worldbuilding, this book excels at portraying tragically flawed and broken characters. The story mainly focuses on two sorcerers that fall on each end of the city’s social spectrum. Nuru is an unfortunate Grower, but an insanely powerful street sorcerer. While she’s naturally beautiful and intensely influential to those she silently leads, she has a complete lack of confidence, viewing herself as ordinary, which she is most certainly not. Akachi is an interim priest of the god Cloud Serpent. Overly sure in his many mystical abilities, he’s terrified of disappointing his father, High Priest of Cloud Serpent, with his performance at his temple deep within the Growers’ Ring. Unwilling to request help, he’s prepared to sacrifice everyone and everything in order to complete the task set before him. Furthermore, a strong and dynamic supporting cast not only adds depth to the story, but also to our main POV characters. For fear of giving too much away, I’ll leave them for you become acquainted with yourself.

The world is coming apart. The smoke never lied.

Fletcher is a master of immersion with a level of twisted creativity most could only hope to strive for. As soon as I began reading the first chapter, I was immediately hooked and unable to put the book down. A narrative dominated by captivating lyrical prose and lucid descriptions bathing you in the filth of Bastion made this an addictive read that I hoped would never end. I could feel the harsh grit of the desert sand and the stickiness of blood baking in the sun. I could sense the encompassing fear of the horrors lurking in the shadows and the strangled hope for a brighter tomorrow. Riddles presented by the gods are not only for characters to decipher, but for readers to decode, as well. A strong, solid plot riddled with shocking twists left me slack-jawed and craving more. Diving into one of his books is more than just an enrapturing read, it’s an enveloping experience in which no review could possibly prepare you for.

What an intense and extraordinary way to begin a new series. We’re left with the fate of all hanging in the balance, and I cannot wait to continue my journey through the cramped and drab streets of the Growers’ Ring as the chaos infiltrates further inwards. Smoke and Stone will be available September 13, 2019, so make sure you pre-order your copy now!

Note: A huge thank you to the author for an advanced copy of this book.

Justine Bergman

Web developer by trade, ravenous reader, excited reviewer, dark fantasy enthusiast, mother of pups, drinker of strong coffee, and player of games. I'm also a contributor over at Fantasy Book Critic and The Fantasy Hive, and I love sharing the love.

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