The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley

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The Heart of Stone is Galley’s eighth novel, and is my introduction to his writing. Task, a four hundred year old stone golem, has been killing on the field of battle for centuries. It was what he was built to do, and he does it well. But he is also an intelligent and empathetic being, and the years of war have chiseled away at him, eroding his humanity.

Task’s personal story is one of redemption, but the overarching theme of the book is about free will. Task must learn to break his magic bonds and do what is right. Lesky must learn to break the bonds of fear and rank and follow her own path. And the armies and generals must learn that, sometimes, you might just be the bad guy without knowing it and you have to choose not to obey your own orders.

This is also a book about faith. Not religious or spiritual faith, but a deeper, more personal faith in ones self and in those around you. Task must learn to trust people – people he has been systematically programmed to kill – and the people around him must learn to trust him – despite their fear of what he could do. Lesky and Task both have to rely on their instincts and rely on their hearts to make the hard, but correct choices – they must have faith, that when all around them say they are wrong, that they are right.

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When he isn’t writing award winning Dark Fantasy novels, Ben also runs a highly successful self publishing consultancy.

It was the protagonists that made this book work for me. I loved Task’s little rebellious moments where he was able to push his boundaries and display some resentment. I genuinely rooted for the character. Despite being a Dark Fantasy novel, and one set in the midst of a raging war, the highlights for me were the more subdued moments. Those were where Galley shined the brightest. The moments when Task made friends in the camp, joining in their card games, or his developing friendship with Lesky, a girl who tends the stables. In fact, if anything, the book would have been better if it had focused almost solely on Task and the girl – their relationship was the best part of the novel.

One area that the book could have used more work on, I felt, was setting up the overarching conflict of the book. The antagonists fell flat, especially with the Countess. Her motivation wasn’t clear which I found distracting the first few times she was talking to the ‘enemy’, unsure of how she got there. The first time she killed someone, it was so out of the blue, and ritualistic, that I was seriously confused. Not shocked or surprised, but just confused. The military general, a typical Bully-in-charge type character, didn’t feel enough of a real threat to me, and in fact, the main villain of the story wasn’t particularly clear until much later in the novel. Instead of being a sudden reveal, it felt more like a random change in direction. If there had been foreshadowing leading up to this reveal it may have had more impact and even amplified the tone of the world.

Speaking of world… though he has a well crafted fantasy world, he missed opportunities to let us, the reader, share this knowledge. Fantasy animal names were used without once describing them, and I found this both frustrating and distracting. It took me out of the moment when I had to stop and decipher from the context what sort of creature was being mentioned. And it wasn’t just the animal names I found distracting. Nomenclature, in general, does not seem to be Galley’s strongest asset. The names of characters and places felt a little too quickly put together, and though some of these names do get an explanation, it isn’t until towards the end of the book.

But these issues are minor details. The most important aspects of any book are the protagonists and the writing itself. With the main character being a literal stone war machine, I was impressed that Galley was able to avoid turning the book into a splatterpunk farce – though the gore was visceral and dripping, it was used sparingly and spread throughout the book… just like Task’s victims. The rationed violence, and the fact that Task was a complicated and reluctant destroyer, gave weight and depth to the fight scenes that many novels lack.

Despite having flaws, they were not significantly detrimental to the story or to my enjoyment of it. Ben Galley created complex characters that faced real problems, inside and out, and the dialogue was well-written. I was carried along with Task, right to the end of his journey, and I enjoyed the trip. A very good book, and an excellent addition to any Dark Fantasy lover’s bookshelf.

You can purchase The Heart of Stone on March 30th 2017, or you can pre-order it now. For more information visit Ben’s website.

Star Rebel by F. M. Busby

22401Star Rebel is an epic story of one man’s struggle against institutional brutality and the oppression of the Space Academy. Bran Tregare has survived humiliation, beatings, fights to the death and witnessed rapes and murders – all by superior officers who use their authority to satisfy their own sadistic needs. Somehow, amongst this violence, Bran has to not just survive physically, but mentally as well, and avoid becoming the monster that the totalitarian regime is trying to make him.

Bran is only thirteen when he is sent to the academy, known by those who have attended as “The Slaughterhouse”. It is here he learns the horrors of what people are capable of, and though of a wealthy and powerful upbringing, now finds himself stripped of any rights or privileges and is powerless against the tyranny embedded in the system.

This is not an original story premise, and the character archetypes you would expect from a military academy story are all there. Bran is the small kid who thinks fast and overpowers his foes through cunning and determination and quickly rises through the ranks. There are his numerous sexual conquests who have only fleeting impact on the story and serve more as plot drivers than characters. There are the brutal officers, the bullies, the quiet kid and the kindly authority figures who are too powerless to stop the brutality but help where they can. There are factions, there is mutiny, and there is revenge.

Reading this book I couldn’t help but think of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, or Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. What set this story apart, however, was that the conflict were kept to a personal level. There were some big action scenes, to be sure, but nothing as vast or epic in scope as the aforementioned books. Star Rebels firmly keeps itself grounded so that through the entire book you are relating to the personal struggles of Bran.

It reminded me of High School, and of the jobs I have held in large corporations which do have systemic cultures of bullying and oppression. I could relate to everything in this book. Busby did a fantastic job creating a realistic hero, and showing the way the trauma of each horror manifested itself in him – anxiety, depression, insomnia, nightmares and physical illness and various dysfunctions.

Busby was a Veteran of both the American National Guard and of the US Army, and when one reads this book you can see the mark that WWII left upon him. The dehumanization of people is a large theme in this book, as is the theme of institutional corruption. Bran is so emotionally scarred by these things, that one can’t help but thinking Busby was writing from experience.

It could be an argument that the institution of The Academy was representative of the US Army at the time – in the book it is very clear that women don’t carry true respect or authority, and that homosexuals are demonized – things that Bran doesn’t agree with.

But it could also be argued that The Academy is a metaphor for Fascism, inspired by Nazi Germany – clear in the way that human life has no value to The Academy and discipline must be absolute.

Star Rebel is a solid entry to a series that started in 1976 with Rissa Kerguelen and culminated in Rebel Seed in 1986. It is an emotional read full of anger, hate and grief; but there is also love, and friendship and honour. It was hard to put this book down, as it ensnared me from the beginning. Not a book for the young reader – the violence can be disturbing – but young adults and upwards will enjoy this novel.

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