A Cast of Stones stumbles out of the gate with an ungainliness not dissimilar to that exhibited by its protagonist, a young drunk whose grand entrance consists of a muddy faceplant outside the entrance to a tavern. That’s not to say it’s immediately off-putting; from the very first page, it’s apparent that this novel, a debut high fantasy by author Patrick Carr, harbors lofty aspirations. It begins in medias res. It’s conscious of its own setting and makes a concerted effort to convey that setting to the reader. Its characters talk like real people. It cares about atmosphere and mood and all the subtleties which function, invisibly, to elevate prose into an art-form and cause us to feel that which we absorb from a page.
But it tries too hard — grasping a little too tightly at sophisticated-sounding language while neglecting a deeper issue: the fact that the reader has been given absolutely no reason to care about what happens. The protagonist, Errol Stone, is, as has been noted, a drunk. That in itself isn’t a problem; I’m actually quite impressed that a Christian author would choose to shackle his hero with such a high-profile, in-your-face character flaw. What’s a problem is the fact that he’s only a drunk. He has no redeeming qualities, no admirable traits. Everything he does, he does in order to lay his hands on yet another mug of ale. What’s even worse than this two-dimensionality is the fact that he likes it. He has no dreams, no vision, no goal in life. His only wish is to remain in a pathetic state of dependency deplored by the reader. He isn’t interesting in the slightest. He makes you want to put the book down and move on.
It soon becomes apparent that Errol Stone is embroiled entirely against his will in a fracas of far-reaching repercussions. He’s contracted to deliver a mysterious parcel to a mysteriously reclusive priest, then fired upon by mysterious hit-men en route. Upon reaching his destination, Errol Stone discovers that things are even more mysterious than he’d thought. The priest, Pater Martin, and his companion Luis appear to be more than they seem (yes, that’s kinda redundant, but it’s what we’ve gotta settle for when the POV character isn’t interested in the plot). In the ensuing chapters we’re treated to cryptic, half-overheard conversations, much futile pitying of Errol the Addict, eye-bugging sentences like “Luis snorted a catarrhal sound that reverberated in his throat,” and the amazing fact that Pater Martin never rises from a seated position without “levering his bulk.” Errol himself is, of course, almost completely oblivious to all this; he’s a passive peon complacent in his squalor. Things have been set in motion by Errol’s coming — momentous things — but Errol himself remains as stagnant as ever. You can glimpse the shadow of a larger story coalescing in your peripheral vision. You just wish the protagonist would get with the program already.
Don’t give up.
It turns out that Luis is a Reader, an officer in the story-world’s powerful Catholic-analogous Church who accesses knowledge and foretells the future by casting lots. Readers are born, not made, and Luis quickly identifies a similar talent in Errol. This is such a big deal that Luis deems it necessary to dispense with Errol’s personal liberty and put a Compulsion on him — a magical directive which will ensure he shows up under his own power at the Conclave, a council of Readers in the distant capital city tasked with choosing a replacement for the heirless King of Illustra. And thus begins a journey as comfortably familiar to high-fantasy fans as are the stereotypically black-clad assassins dogging our heroes’ steps. But now Errol’s reticence seems even more selfish, since more than his own welfare is finally at stake. Fortunately, you’re now nearing the novel’s 25% mark.
That’s your goal. 25%.
As the first act draws to a close, the story begins to change because Errol begins to change. Events are set in motion which forcibly separate him from both his companions and his continuous influx of ale. Purged of his flaw, Errol becomes a different person altogether: an interesting person. In fact, he now demonstrates such a refreshing proclivity to soak up instruction that you almost forgive the author for conveniently depositing him in the lap of The World’s Most Awesome Mentor Figure Ever, a mysterious farmer who, for little apparent reason and without incurring any apparent opportunity-cost in his day-job, takes Errol under his wing and turns him into a master of the quarterstaff. At this point the story dips dangerously close to a cringe-worthy “I know kung-fu!” moment, but the author manages to cram in just enough thwacks and bruises to make the whole thing feel marginally real.
And by this point it’s too late to stop reading, because we’re out of the doldrums and running before the wind, sails high. Patrick Carr has finally found his stride as a writer, and, buoyed by a protagonist we now actually respect, A Cast of Stones keeps picking up speed until its remaining flaws and hiccups flash past like the whistling ends of Errol’s staff as he ascends the merit-based ranks of a company of caravan-guards. I’m grinning now, because the stuff I’m reading is just as engaging as the very best offered by the secular fantasy market. The supporting cast feels distinct and complex — their schemes are well-motivated, their dialog seamlessly natural. The story just flows. It has purpose, direction. And combat. Lots of combat.
A word about the combat: I love it. Though it’s light on technical description (due, I’m guessing, to the author’s inexperience with medieval weaponry), it never feels either dull or unrealistically melodramatic. Carr knows when to skip past an event whose outcome you’ve already guessed, and he knows how to draw out the tension of a genuinely frightening encounter. And, though Errol may be a quick study, a lazy prodigy he is not. His sweat-drenched ardor to improve his newfound abilities is nothing short of inspiring. It leaves one wondering if he really could get so good so fast …
And all the while the Conclave is looming, growing in Errol’s thoughts. He’s been destined against his will to walk right into a real hornets’ nest of a third act in which the savage wayside and bawdy common-room give way to the haunted halls of a city besieged from within by an unknown enemy. A place where secrets will come to light and fates will be decided.
A Cast of Stones fulfills many of my long-held wishes for quality “Christian fantasy”: it pays attention to its syntax and occasionally engages in original metaphor, develops a confident sense of pacing which leaves the reader no room for tedium, features an innovative magic system complete with rules and limitations, demonstrates self-awareness by lampshading its cheesier moments, feels no obligation to strike a moralizing tone, and consistently cultivates genuine tension. It’s a glittering gem in its subgenre, well worth your time and effort. Its latter three quarters constitute a very good novel.
But it falls short of greatness.
Why is this? What prevents this good novel, this entertaining novel, from finding a place beside genre giants like The Way of Kings and The Name of the Wind? Before flipping the first page I had skimmed several unfavorable reviews which complained of Carr’s supposedly shallow worldbuilding or his story’s grievous lack of a flyleaf map, but now, having finished the book, I don’t believe such critiques to be substantive. Carr’s style lends itself to the material; at no point did I feel contextually malnourished. Not every high fantasy requires reams of cultural or geographical description. Carr doesn’t describe things before they become relevant to Errol, and his restraint in parcelling out information makes for compelling mystery-arcs. No, the novel’s limitations have little to do with its worldbuilding.
But as I digested the story over the ensuing weeks, I realized that it was limited. It had failed to move me, to pierce my soul in any meaningful way. I wasn’t mulling over its insights or grappling with its themes. Ultimately, it wasn’t a tale which would stick with me for longer than it’d take me to finish the next book in my queue. But why?
The answer lies in the relationship between the story’s internal and external conflicts. Specifically, in the fact that the two exhibit no discernible relationship whatsoever.
Here’s what I mean. Throughout the first act, Errol’s internal conflict — his alcoholism — dominates everything, drowning out nearly all hints of the upcoming external conflict with the forces threatening the kingdom. Those hints which do manage to penetrate Errol’s ale-addled brain seem disjointed and irrelevant. After all, who has time to care about the fate of the world when you know your protagonist doesn’t stand a chance of survival unless he sobers up? It’s what irritated me so badly about the story’s first quarter: the only thing I wanted was for Errol Stone to transmogrify into someone I actually liked. The internal conflict was the only thing that mattered.
But then Errol quits his drink cold-turkey, just in time to man up for the plot’s demands. And that’s that. It’s over. At no point during the remainder of the novel does he suffer a relapse. Sure, there’s token gestures to temptation, but nothing which actually influences the plot, nothing which informs the external conflict. It soon becomes apparent that, even though an abusive priest has alienated him from organized religion, Errol possesses a highly-developed and totally unmotivated sense of honor which precludes his willingness to cast lots for profit, among other things. Errol Stone has traded one form of conflict — the kind that pitted him against himself — for a more superficially interesting variety dealt with via whirling lengths of ash. It’s like the whole first act didn’t even matter. And ironically, the moment at which I began enjoying the novel was the same moment it threw away its shot at saying something profound about existence.
If the conflict within Errol and that without had been blended, if the two had somehow been linked, what a realm of thematic possibilities would have opened before this story! No longer would Errol’s alcoholism have been a mere impediment to be shrugged off before the real plot could begin, and no longer would the real plot — the entertaining plot filled with adventure and intrigue — have felt as empty as it did in retrospect. I imagine a decision to explore the consequences of addiction in a high-states environment would have been a difficult one for any author to make. What’s more, the results would have likely proven unpleasant at times for readers. I don’t fault Carr for forgoing that route. But I must therefore question his decision to make Errol an alcoholic in the first place. Why burden the guy with such a distinctive vice only to whisk it away when push came to shove? It seems meaningless, as though Carr simply sat down in front of Errol’s character profile, noticed a blank checkbox labeled “Primary Flaw” and obligatorily decided to fill it in with something nonstandard.
Don’t get me wrong: this fundamental disconnect doesn’t ruin the story by a long shot. But greatness is all about meaning, and meaning isn’t easy to achieve. Like the answer on a Reader-carved lot, it becomes visible only after innumerable pares of the knife, each as careful and precise as all those that came before. When the sculpting finally ceases, not a stray particle remains to mar the internal cohesiveness of the work.
A Cast of Stones, though shaped from sturdy stuff, could use a few more turns.