Today I’m back with a review for Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher, the first book in the Obsidian Path series. I read this book for the first time a while ago and shamefully never got around to reviewing, but I’ve just reread it in preparation for the third book in the series coming out – and I have promised myself that I won’t read An End to Sorrow (Book three) until I’ve reviewed this one and She Dreams in Blood and it is sat on my shelf begging to be read so here we are.
A broken man, Khraen awakens alone and lost. His stone heart has been shattered, littered across the world. With each piece, he regains some small shard of the man he once was.
He follows the trail, fragment by fragment, remembering his terrible past.
There was a woman.
There was a sword.
There was an end to sorrow.
Khraen walks the obsidian path.
‘Every day we do the things we think we have to do. So rarely do we stop to question our choices. We don’t even see deciding that we ‘have to do something’ is itself a choice. We blunder through life, writing our failures and excuses as we go, defending every choice with justifications made up after the fact. The truth is, we never really consider the consequences.’
Black Stone Heart is darkness, philosophy and pure compulsion all wrapped into one. I will start by saying that this book is dark. Incredibly and undeniably so – and it runs the gauntlet of the worst that humans can do to one another, and Fletcher does not water that aspect down, it is bloody and violent and horrific, and this is definitely not the book for you if you’re sensitive to those aspects. I loved that this book was completely unabashed in its portrayal of these aspects, there is no sugar-coating, there is no attempt to try and compel us as the reader to view these characters with pity, or to excuse why they are doing this – even as we are given with reasons and rationale, and through the first person POV able to understand that and feel the process that our main character goes through. What makes it even more powerful, and why it worked so well here is that the book and the character – Khraen – are open to confronting the morality or lack thereof in his choices, to actively questioning them and what they will mean for him, and for the world and those around him.
This leads to one of the reasons why this book is so compelling.
It not only asks questions, but it interrogates and directly confronts the answers.
You don’t need to have sat in a philosophy class to have sat there and asked the questions that Black Stone Heart explores. The primary one and one that I think will resonate the most is ‘If you were a given a chance to repeat your life, to start over, would you do it in the same? Would you change? Can you change?’ I know it’s a question I’ve thought about before (in and out of philosophy class), and here we get to see that question asked, and not just answered but playing out on the pages of this story. With the first person POV of Khraen, it gives that exploration an extra potency, because we are intimately sharing his attempts to answer that question, his emotional reactions to the realisation that he has this chance to do things again, to discovering snippets of what and who he was in the past and the gulf between what he is now, and the man he was and could be. The dichotomy between who he is now and who he wants to be, and who he was, and who he is meant to be, is absolutely fascinating – and the struggle is dealt with beautifully, because there is that compulsion to fix himself and regain the things that he lost but is starting to remember, and the desire to change, to be different, and the hope – perhaps foolish – that he can become who he was, but change himself even if he follows the same steps.
His journey to find himself – literally confronting himself, and the possibilities of what he could be in this second chance – also throws up so many other questions and answers, many of them uncomfortable. Many of them with varied answers, or ones that are always going to be shaded by personal belief and experience.
Does the end justify the means?
Can Evil be rationalised?
Is evil done for a ‘greater good’ still evil?
Here again is the power of this book, because we the reader are not being coerced to agree with the choices or conclusions reached by Khraen even though he is our narrator and we are so intimate with his perspective. Instead, Fletcher creates a parallel through a combination of questions that resonate with the reader, but also through the writing which draws you in, confronts you, challenges you and lets you see each moment both through Khraen but also through your own eyes.
Khraen is not meant to be our hero. His actions can be seen in black and white. It would be easy to point at him and label him ‘evil’ but that would be too simple, and this character is anything but simple. His actions are evil, even as he justifies them – even as you can understand them, and sometimes even sympathise e.g. his urge to survive is something incredibly human and relatable. How do you decide where a character falls on the spectrum of good and evil when they don’t even have an answer to that question? Fletcher has to be commended for this character, because love or hate him, sympathize or disagree, there is something in Khraen that resonates – that makes you want to understand him, to see where his path will lead.
“Life feeds on life,” she said. “Why should death be any different?”
In some ways Henka is a simpler character because we are not so familiar with her, as she is not our POV character, but again because there is that push to survive that we can resonate with. Even if that survival has a completely different flavour in her case. Also, I have to say that I loved that there was a necromancer so predominantly in this story and that necromancy featured so strongly as a form of magic, although some of those scenes might be the ones that will make some people put this book down. It was also interesting to see the cost of such magic, and such an existence playing out – I am a great fan of magic having a cost to balance it out, and Henka really does embody that. It is the dynamic between her and Khraen that strips away that simplicity, because their relationship – which I will admit took me a little longer to warm to than the rest of the book – has the depth of history, without the memory of it, and in some ways, it felt like a perfect storm. Henka was devoted and would risk everything for him, and Khraen silenced his doubts and morals to do what he could to help her, and together they were capable of great darkness. Yet, at the same time, there is a weird balance of vulnerability and manipulation, almost like they were weaving webs around one another, and it was just a fascinating relationship.
‘Oceans were mammoth water elementals as old as the world. The larger and older an elemental was, the more powerful, the more difficult to awaken. And the more difficult to control.’
Black Stone Heart ticks so many boxes of that lovely debatable term ‘grimdark’, and yet it also embraces full-on fantasy with wizards, multiple magical systems, elementals and demons and so many other aspects. The worldbuilding was absolutely fantastic, and Fletcher does that thing that I love where as much as we learned about the world, it always felt like there was more to uncover and learn about so that we are on as much of a journey as Khraen is. Also, one of the most potent images and ideas that really resonated with me was the idea of the ocean as a humongous, ancient water elemental. Firstly – just the imagery of that is so striking, and it’s so easy to visualise when you stand on the beach looking out over the sea, but again it adds that depth to the worldbuilding – because the whole world in Black Stone Heart is alive in some way, and the layers upon layers of connection, whether in the world itself or memories or through Khraen is breathtaking. There’s also a fantastic parallel in how the world unfolds, with Khraen finding shards of himself and regaining more memories, which is just a great way to tie everything together. I just want to spend more time in this world, and especially see more of the fantastical elements like the magic systems which are so well realised.
The writing and pacing are really just the cherries on the top with Black Stone Heart. Fletcher’s writing is compelling in its own right, clear and intense with some truly memorable lines, and visceral descriptions that pair beautifully with the story that is being told. The pacing is fast and brutal and takes you along for the ride.
Black Stone Heart was an experience. Fletcher has taken all the elements and defined them in his own inimitable style, and what he has created is a beautifully dark compulsion in written form. Both times I have picked this book up I have been completely and utterly unable to put this book down – even when I knew what was happening – and even when I’ve finished, it has lingered, demanding to be thought about and turned over and over in the back of my mind. This won’t be the book for everyone – I reiterate this is brutal and dark – but it’s certainly the book for me, and if you love dark fantasy that confronts and questions and challenges then this might well be the book for you too.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.