Magic, Romance, and Race Take The Forefront in L. Penelope’s Song of Blood and Stone
Fantasy has some trouble these days with representation. Specifically, it has a lot of issues with being anything more than worlds filled with to the brim with white people. Be it elves, dwarves, humans, or something else entirely, if a character on the pages is not sharing characteristics with an animal, it’s most certainly a white person. Hence why I was so excited to start reading Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope. An “own voices” novel featuring a black female protagonist by a black author. Sign. Me. Up!
Unfortunately, this book didn’t quite live up to the hype that I’d generated all on my own after reading the description. It started incredibly strong, with a short chapter on the mythology of the world at large. How it was formed by people called Singers and was added to over time by their children and their children’s children. Each chapter even opens with a snippet of folklore that gives the impression of further world-building, but eventually only muddy the things that are going on in each of their respective chapters.
Furthermore, L. Penelope has a really bad habit of giving us too much or not enough when the reader wants the opposite. There were swaths of this book that didn’t need to exist, and others that needed much more elaboration. I was more than halfway through this book still unaware of how the magic system worked, or why it was even called a song since there’s no singing involved. Plot points were incredibly predictable, and the tropes were rage inducing. I struggled to like this book, and while I ultimately succeed, I had little help from the author in doing so.
With two more books to come in this series, I’m uncertain about continuing. It screams its self-published origins from the rooftops at every page turn, and while the story eventually improves, it took over 70% of the book for that to happen. The world and magic were fascinating, I just don’t know if I can muster the energy for a second one, much less a third.
What’s Going On?
Our main character, Jasminda, is an orphaned young woman living on a family farm. She’s capable of using Earthsong, an ancient and mysterious magic that few else have. Because of this, and the color of her skin that marks her as an outsider amongst her fellow countrymen, Jasminda is used to living alone. Until Jack comes along, that is. But Jack brings trouble in the form of some soldiers who want to bring him back across the border for questioning. Turns out, he was a spy that got caught. Now, with an oncoming storm on the way, the soldiers force themselves into Jasminda’s home to take shelter until its passing. This goes about as well as one could expect. Her only reprieve being the sudden and quick infatuation she’s finding in Jack, and he, in turn, with her.
Circumstances and love carry both Jasminda and Jack across the country in an effort to stop the True Father: the dictator of Lagrimar, which is the country bordering Elisar: Jack and Jasminda’s home. It’s from this point on that the book moves at near lightning speed. Every few chapters or so we’re introduced to a medley of characters with faces but no personalities. Some of them hate Jasminda just because, while others offer guidance and answers only to disappear later at the drop of a hat. Outside of Jasminda, and later Jack, we really don’t develop relationships with any of the side characters. Everyone serves only to bolster the plot, right down to the True Father and the Sleeping Queen, who are arguably important cultural – even religious – figures in this world.
We are likewise delivered to plot points that are forgotten just as fast. Jack is revealed to be the High Commander of Elsira’s army, an odd notion that no one they’ve encountered has pointed this, or his other, later revealed familiar connections out during the book. Jasminda is losing her family farm due to being unable to pay the back taxes on it but can obtain the money if she signs a legal document denying her parentage issued to her by her estranged grandfather so that he can run for a government position. This comes up again one more time as Jasminda encounters her grandfather in the capital but then is dropped almost instantly when shit hits the veritable fan.
We’re given too much too fast, with nothing fluffing up the narrative at all. Characters don’t get time to reflect on events, which means readers don’t get to either. Which means readers also fail to obtain an attachment to the characters because they don’t get to know them very well. You genuinely want to like Jasminda, and sometimes even Jack, at least until other problems arise leaving you questioning everything even further.
Racism Is Present But Never Elaborated On
Naturally, a love story grows between Jasminda and Jack as their need for each other’s talents and resources escalates. However, this romance fails to grow organically, which is more a problem in the writing than anything else. That being said, the love between them is endearing enough to carry a good portion of the story, at least for a time. Then you run into the abominable virgin trope, and from there, things get worse still.
While it’s clear Jack loves Jasminda, there’s inherent racism in his actions toward her that isn’t approached the way it maybe should have been. He awards her the national medal of heroism for saving his life, but instead of having a public ceremony over it, he gives it to her in secret, thereby also keeping her hero status a secret. One could argue that this would have helped improve not only her status in the country, but also those of the refugees of Lagrimar who share her complexion and magical abilities – more on that later. He also refuses to announce his love for her under the guise of it “making her life more difficult”. His arguments come from a place of love, but they do more harm than good.
Now, you might argue saying “But Beth, this is a young adult book and these issues are complicated” and you’d be right, to a point. But we also deal with rape, both potentially of Jack and Jasminda at one point. We have very mature representations of sex as well. I feel that if an audience is deemed mature enough to handle the realities of this, the least we can do is afford more descriptions on racism.
Perhaps this is harsh coming from a white reviewer discussing a black woman’s novel, given that I have no experience with racism myself. Still, as an adult, I recognized these themes and liked that they were highlighted in the narrative. Yet I feel the lack of elaboration on them fails a younger (and admittedly white) audience that could use these examples to become more aware of all of the faces of racism at large.
The World At Large
There were other issues I had as well, not so much in delivery just in their lack of explanation. Lagrimar is a nation of Singers, meanwhile, Elsira is a nation of Silents (people without song). Lagrimar consists of people who are predominantly darker skinned, whereas Elsira is made up of light-skinned redheads with golden eyes. Is this, then, less a national issue than it is a racial one? This is never really explained. Are all dark-skinned people Singers? What about people in other countries? Are their Singers elsewhere? We never really know, just that in Lagrimar there is a tyrant ruler who is stealing people’s Songs, leading to a mass exodus of Lagrimari and Elsira now being filled with refugees that the country doesn’t want.
Many Elsiran’s call Lagrimari “grol” which is never explained either. What is the origin of this word? It’s clearly a slur, but why? I suppose it shouldn’t matter. If someone says something is racist it’s best not to argue just for the sake of using the word, but this could have been a bit of world building that might have benefited the novel.
Lastly, we have what I felt was the most interesting aspect of the story, which was the (literal) awakening of an important political and religious leader, The Sleeping Queen. Over the course of the novel, we learn about her story, but never much more than that. When she is awakened, society nearly explodes on itself when it is discovered that she’s actually a dark-skinned woman with Singer abilities. This causes many people to completely forsake their religion and proclaim the belief system a cult. While this doesn’t go much deeper in this particular novel, I thought this was a really fascinating parallel to modern religious figures. Sadly, once again the novel didn’t explore much more of this beyond the surface of the revelation, though it’s possible it will come up in later books.
Despite much of my criticism, I liked the book well enough to give it three stars/joysticks. While Penelope’s writing needs some work, she has a really good idea going on here. I liked how modern this fantasy world had a tendency to be when you weren’t expecting it. This world has electricity, cars, trains, planes and more, but still feels far enough removed from the real world that magic sounds like an organic addition.
I liked Jasminda and Jack, even though they needed some more flushing out as people. I even enjoyed the sweetness of their romance despite it being frustratingly insta-lovey and uncomplicated. I could have done without the purity virgin tropes, as well as a few more ridiculous aspects of their sexcapades, but I won’t dive further into that here.
I liked the attempt at world-building, especially with the folklore snippets at the beginning of chapters, and the touches of the origin story of the Sleeping Queen and the True Father. Though again, this storyline was predictable.
Ultimately this was a decent book, but I wish that St. Martin’s Press had worked with Penelope to clean it up a little before final publication. There’s potential here to be certain, but it will require patience from readers to see it. Sadly, given how long it takes to get there, the book might drive away any potential fans before they can realize the story’s full capacity.
Final Verdict: 3 / 5
Song of Blood and Stone was written by L. Penelope and is being published by St. Martin’s Press. It will be available May 2018.
This book was given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher as a NetGalley eBook.