G R Matthews
Heart of Stone by Ben Galley
You’re used to your heroes full of muscle, swords drawn, shields raised or magic staff held before them, facing the oncoming hordes. A brave, but desperate last stand against impossible odds, knowing that one sword, one flaming arrow or magic missile will spell doom. Flesh can only stand so much before it perishes.
But what if you’re not made of flesh? What if you are made of stone and arrows simply bounce from your skin, swords break across your back, musket balls leave mere striations? Would you feel empathy for those beings of flesh you fight or even those you protect? Would you care for the world around you, simply exist (if existence is simple at all), or seek oblivion? Would you even be aware of existence and that of others? What would the world mean to you?
These are the questions that Ben Galley poses and seeks to answer in his stand-alone Fantasy book, Heart of Stone.
Task is a wind-cut Golem, perhaps the last of his kind. Hundreds, if not thousands of years old, and he has seen it all. The ‘skinbags’ fight their wars and he is tasked with winning them. Passed from master to master, controlled by others and the magic that drives him, Task is a slave who desires freedom or death.
The story begins when Task is delivered to his knew master, the Commander of a hard-pressed army that has spent months bogged down in a horrible (as if there is any other type) civil war. With Task’s arrival a new sense of purpose sweeps through the army and once they see him fight they consider themselves pretty much unstoppable.
And if that’s all the story is then it would go nowhere and be nothing. Task though is no simple creation of magic, but a creature with his own mind and desires. When a small girl befriends him, seeing past the height, the strength and killing the world begins to change.
There are other characters too; some are friendly, some are not. Some display honour and others spurn it. There are those loyal to their side and those who’d betray it at every turn.
You get the sense, as you progress that there is a rich world behind this civil war, a history to it and this I enjoyed very much. I wanted more of it. I wanted to know more about the religion, the history, the other nations and I can only hope that this is a world Ben returns to and, if you’ll pardon the phrase, fleshes out some more.
The action sequences are very well explained and described, especially considering the killing-machine that Task is. Things should be easy for the golem, even cannon balls pose little danger, but it is not. More battles are fought with the golem’s own ethics and morals than the mortals that surround him in the melee.
There is magic too. More than just the preparation and creation of golems, but there those who can control thoughts and can peer into other’s minds. Behind it all is the old magic, and you get a feel of almost Tolkienesque age to the world; the walking trees might be some clue to that. However, the old magic is passing and Galley has no compunction at killing off some of his most memorable creations – a quick nod to Tolkien and then its utter destruction by cannon. Magic giving way to science perhaps – all very Seven Samurai.
If I’ve one quibble, and no book is ever perfect, (thank whatever deity you believe in, if you do. If you don’t, then it is just one of those immutable truths of the universe, so there.), it is that it ends too late. How to explain without spoilers… right, there is an ending at the end of the book and it makes sense and that’s fine, but there is in ending earlier on that could well have left the book open for a sequel (it still may).
So, I’m not ending on a quibble, this book is good. There are action sequences where you feel every thunderous report of a cannon, smell the gunpowder and hear the screams of the dying, all underpinned by the implacable pace of the golem. There are friendships that shape Task’s world-view and force him challenge ideas he’s held for a very long time. And there is room for a sequel, or at least more books in a very rich world.