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The Burning Stone by Kate Elliott

The Burning Stone - Kate Elliott

I am continuing to enjoy this series, which deserves more attention than it’s gotten. Come on, it has everything you’d want from epic fantasy: intricate plotting on an epic scale, several major threats coming from different directions, battles that can and do go either way, complex political situations, charming and devious villains, a bit of romance, some magic that we’re only slowly learning anything about, an expansive world that feels real and lived-in, and of course interesting and sympathetic characters.

This book expands the scope of the story quite a bit, and seems to be the series’ transition from the early, more self-contained books (each building up to its own big climax) to the more long-term plotting that will carry it through the next several books. This doesn’t slow down the story though – in fact, while there are lulls early in the second book, this one maintains its momentum throughout. Many epic fantasies start to stagger under their own weight, and since Elliott is a detail-heavy writer I wasn’t sure what to expect, but if there is a slump coming here I haven’t seen signs of it yet.

I continue to really enjoy this world, which is closely based on the early Middle Ages, and in particular the way the series goes all-in on the depiction of the medieval church, which is usually brushed aside in fantasy. The way Elliott riffs on medieval ideas about gender to create a system of gender roles that are believable and organic to the society, yet quite different from Europe’s at that time, is also a lot of fun. For instance, take the medieval idea that women had less brainpower because their ovaries sapped mental energy, and turn it into the idea that ovaries provide a steadying force and therefore women are better as administrators and landowners while men go off to war. There are exceptions to all the rules, just like there were in real life, but Elliott has created a world that allows a range of possibilities for all its characters, without all the women’s stories being about sexism (which gets old) and without sacrificing the feeling of a medieval world.

As for the characters themselves, I criticized the secondary POVs in the second book, Rosvita and Hanna for being too personally removed from events despite being located in the thick of things, and Ivar for being too physically removed from the rest of the story. All of that improves in this book, especially Ivar’s plotline. Though the new POV, the ex-cleric, ex-Quman captive Zacharias, is boring so far and I’m disappointed to see him returning for book four. Sanglant is finally coming into his role as a main character, playing a much larger role than in the first two books. Liath’s and Alain’s plotlines continue to be the most eventful and entertaining, both of them taking unexpected roads. I am starting to suspect Alain is an actual saint, yet he is so much more likeable and believable than those mealy-mouthed “good” characters one encounters in most fantasy. Meanwhile Liath becomes a wife and mother, which is very unusual for a fantasy protagonist less than halfway through the series, and even more so for one whose role isn’t that of a political leader or consort. It seems like many readers are frustrated by Liath’s reactions to Hugh, but this depiction is painfully realistic; he is her abuser and so she’s never going to respond to him the way she does to other people. (At the same time, I’d be pleased to have them on opposite sides of the continent for the next several books, because reading about their encounters is draining.)

This book does wrap up with a battle, but we’re too far along now for each volume to have a neat conclusion. So there are a lot of threads left open for the next installment, and I really don’t know what will happen next. So, on to the next book. This is fun, you guys! Why don’t I read more fantasy?