Book Review

Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope

CW/TW

this book deals with rampant anti-Black racism and xenophobia with violent and deadly consequences. I will avoid going into detail in the review as much as possible but readers should be aware this is an emotionally draining read for those reasons.

I struggled with how to grade Song of Blood and Stone. I feel like the book did a few things unusually and phenomenally well, and I definitely enjoyed it (especially the latter half when the plot really picks up). However, I was left unsatisfied by some of the relationships and characters. While Song of Blood and Stone is not explicitly a fantasy romance, the romance element is such a major part of the plot that it has a significant impact on the reading experience. And while I thought the fantasy aspect was quite strong, I found myself pretty underwhelmed by the romance.

It’s going to be hard to talk about even the basic premises of the book without providing a bit of context on the world first, so I’ll start there. Lagrimar and Elsira are neighboring countries separated by a magical barrier called the Mantle. Lagrimar is ruled by a power-hungry king who wishes to conquer Elsira and attempts to do so whenever the Mantle has any kind of opening (called a Breach). In general, Lagrimari are Black, and can wield a magic called Earthsong, and Elisirans are White, and have no magic.

Song of Blood and Stone has two heroines. The first is Jasminda, a Black, half-Lagrimari Elsiran citizen (her father crossed over while there was a Breach in the Mantle) who is trying to save her family farm after receiving a notice that she owes an enormous amount of back taxes. Corrupt government bureaucracy: the enemy of us all! She finds a wounded Elsiran soldier named Jack who is being pursued by Lagrimari soldiers through a new, small Breach.

The second heroine, Ella, is an undocumented immigrant from the country of Yaly living in Elsira. She is married to an Elsiran citizen but because she is undocumented, she is legally required to remain within the bounds of the coastal city of Portside. However, her estranged sister, a priestess of the Elsiran Sisterhood, unexpectedly solicits her help. This leads to Ella needing to travel to a lot of places she is not legally allowed to go.

While trying to solve their personal problems, Ella and Jasminda separately get involved in various plots and schemes that implicate the fate of Elsira and Elsiran politics. (Their plots do eventually intertwine and they meet each other, but it’s pretty late into the book).

Jasminda’s plot is essentially half mystically-infused road trip across the country and half fish-out-of-water in the Elsiran palace. Her portion of the story is relatively sparse on plot beats as much of it focuses on her experiences channeling memory flashbacks of the founders of Elsira and Lagrimar via a magic stone. Her storyline has the portentous, ponderous feel of an epic myth: a tense, poignant atmosphere that occasionally explodes into emotional, violent action.

By contrast, Ella’s portion of the story reads almost like a procedural: it starts with a slowly unfurling mystery, leading to non-stop high-stakes, fast-paced action that implicates more and more of the major power players in Elsira. I found this incredibly engaging and sometimes wished the entire book took this sort of approach, although I do think the disparate vibes of the two plots were melded well.

I also enjoyed both the heroines. Both have a lot of strength and grit but are otherwise very different. Ella is plucky, curious, and extroverted; she strikes me as a classic loveable amateur investigator character. Jasminda is more quietly determined and independent, and remains a compassionate person in the face of an onslaught of exhausting microaggressions (and aggressions) from her countrypeople. Both of their personalities seem to flow quite naturally from their background and experiences as described in the book.

One thing that this book does incredibly well, primarily via the heroines, is show the impact of structural inequality and racism in White society on individual people of color in a visceral way. Ella can “pass” as Elsiran if she dyes her hair, but without Elsiran citizenship, she is in constant terror every time she leaves Portside that someone will demand her papers and she’ll be imprisoned or worse, even though her husband is a well-connected Elsiran military official. Jasminda is an Elsiran citizen but is othered and treated like an outsider because she is Black. She is constantly assumed to be not just Lagrimari, but a potential enemy who “doesn’t belong” in Elsira.

It’s truly devastating to see how Jasminda has internalized some of the constant messaging that she is somehow less-than. At one point she tells Jack:

‘Some things are not for me.’ She raised her gaze to meet his, sorrow evident, but no regret, to his relief. Her fingers hovered above his lips. He held his breath until they descended in a feather-light touch, tracing his mouth. ‘You aren’t for me.’

The tight focus on the emotional impact of bigotry and inequality on Ella and Jasminda made the book incredibly incisive and affecting but also hard to read; I found myself needing to take frequent breaks.

Clear links are drawn within the book between individual hateful actions and the systemic enshrining of racism in law and policy, showing how the two reinforce each other. For example, the aggressive and suspicious behavior of Elsiran soldiers towards Lagrimari refugees mirrors the way the ruling council of Elsira refuses to help those same refugees and uses Elsiran soldiers to drive them out, which emboldens the soldiers to be even more hateful and violent. Because of the way the way this book examines racism and xenophobia as driving forces both in individual cruelty and macro-level policies, Song of Blood and Stone feels incredibly relevant to life in the modern United States. Using a fantasy world that feels very much like an alternate-history United States, it basically holds a mirror up to the repugnant and White Supremacist reality of “foundational” ideas about this country like American Exceptionalism and our supposed “meritocracy.”

Another major strength here is the world-building. This book has an unusual fantasy setting in the way it mixes fantasy and technology. Without the fantasy elements, this book would almost feel like it was set in the 1920s or 30s. There are radios, airships, telegrams, cars, and even telephone booths, but at the same time, everyone in Elsira accepts that their true ruler is a magical sleeping queen who they are hoping will wake up someday and resume her reign. Magic is not quite an everyday thing in Elsira, as part of what Elsirans fear about Lagrimari individuals is their magic, but the supernatural is clearly a major force in the larger world.

So the two primary heroines, the overarching plot, and the world-building were all strong. Unfortunately, I found myself markedly unenthused by the primary romance and somewhat frustrated with how the climax of the book resolved.

I started out tentatively invested in the romance between Jasminda and Jack, the wounded Elsiran soldier she saves in the beginning of the book. I thought the initial stages in which Jasminda and Jack were both protecting each other as much as they could from the Lagrimari soldiers was heartwarming (even though it was kind of traumatizing to read about the soldiers’ repeated attempts to brutalize them). I liked exploring how Jasminda and Jack moved from mutual, wary fascination to a tentative friendship tinged with the possibility of more as they escaped the soldiers and made for the Mantle.

Unfortunately, after that point, I felt the jump from “allies with a crush on each other” to full-blown love happened waaayyyyy too quickly and with very little additional development. I get that Jasminda and Jack probably did some trauma bonding, but every time things escalated significantly (e.g. to a kiss, to sex, to a declaration of love) I found myself going “already!?” It wasn’t quite instalove as I think there was real development of the friendship in the beginning, but it was far closer to instalove than I would have liked. At the end of the book, I didn’t feel like they actually knew each other particularly well.

In addition to the pacing of the romance subplot being off, I’m gonna come right out and say it: Jack SUCKS. To me, his character embodies the kind of man who believes and says all the right things about empathy and equality, but is not willing to ever inconvenience himself to actually do the right thing. He claims he does most of these things because of the close-mindedness of others but at a certain point it’s clear he just does not ever want to face actual backlash or discomfort for doing the right thing. It’s going to be hard to describe the numerous shitty things he does without spoilers, so here we go:

Plot spoilers ahead

First, Jack lies to Jasminda about his identity. He’s actually the prince of Elsira, and he completely springs this information on her in a very public, uncomfortable setting for her. He also asks her to keep their relationship a secret from other people literally right after they have sex for the first time. This has an obvious negative psychological impact on Jasminda and makes her feel very sad and rejected, like she has felt for her entire life.

Perhaps most repugnantly, he allows the ruling council of Elsira to decide to eject all the refugees from Lagrimar and send them to their near-certain deaths. It’s clear that he has the power to stop this; the councilors basically say “well, are you going to dissolve the council to stop us?” But he doesn’t, because he thinks it would be too “extreme” and that the Elsiran people would “lose faith” in him. Oh, sorry, is remaining the prince and in the people’s good graces more important than stopping an immediately unfolding human rights crisis?

Finally, he literally puts Jasminda in a jail cell to try to “protect” her. This leads directly to another very evil character being able to put Jasminda in serious danger, when, if he had just LET JASMINDA LEAVE she would have been safe.

Honestly, I felt Jasminda deserved WAYYYYYY better and I was kind of rooting for her to dump him and go home to her farm at the end of the book. Jasminda, do not settle for a man just because he clears the bar of being not 100% god-awful to be around!!! I guess it’s possible that in subsequent books in this series Jack has more character development and introspection about how he blithely uses his privilege to trample all over Jasminda’s feelings, but during this book, I was literally shouting THROW THE WHOLE MAN AWAY.

Thankfully, not all the romantic relationships in the book are a huge bummer; I found the relationship between Ella and her husband Benn to be quite sweet, and Benn is a great example of a man actually realizing through personal growth how to put the needs of his marginalized partner first.

My other complaint with this book is that I found the climax fairly unsatisfying as it basically involves a massive deus ex machina. After all of the exciting political machinations and revelations throughout the book, I was mildly disappointed at how simply and straightforwardly everything was resolved. I also felt that even though Jasminda was sort of nominally the one who saved Elsira, she ended up not having very much agency in terms of actually doing anything meaningful to resolve the plot because of said deus ex machina.

As I said up top, this all left me struggling with how to grade the book. I found Song of Blood and Stone to be exceptionally skillfully crafted in many ways and I think it deserves huge plaudits for how it uses fantasy to engage with injustice in the modern world. I also loved both of the heroines. I just wish my expectations for the romance subplot had been lower going in, because I found that aspect of the book pretty disappointing. I think if the premise and the issues examined in the book sound interesting to you, you will probably enjoy it just as long as you moderate your expectations for romance.

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Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope

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  1. 1
    DiscoDollyDeb says:
    11+

    Ok—I know you guys may not have any control over which ads for which companies pop up on a screen, but reading this really excellent review about systemic racism and violence while several ads for Red White Blue Apparel (whose logo includes crossed guns and an American flag skull cap), one of which features a white woman with several guns strapped on, was disconcerting to say the least. After checking out their website, I don’t think that company is one that the majority of the Bitchery would be on board with. Ah well, perhaps I should be grateful Jeff Goldblum and Aoartments.com aren’t taking over my screen every few minutes!

  2. 2
    FashionablyEvil says:
    4+

    Glad to see this review! I have the second book in the Earthsinger Chronicles (WHISPER OF SHADOW AND FLAME) on my Kindle, but I haven’t gone back to read it yet because (as is often the case with me and fantasy novels) I don’t remember enough about the world and the politics for the sequel to make sense. Now that I have the context, I feel like I can dive back in!

  3. 3
    Darlynne says:
    1+

    I read this a while ago and your review was a good reminder. I have to agree with the points you raised, although my expectation of romance was not significant. Two incredibly strong women working against so many obstacles, personal and systemic, was the draw for me. Jack? Yes, agreed, and the ending was AYFKM? Maybe the second book will fix or at least explain some of that. Thanks for the review.

  4. 4
    Darlynne says:
    3+

    OT: I must say, this is the fastest a comment of mine has posted in forever. Usually it’s just me and the Jeopardy theme (after copying my comment because I’ve been fooled before). So, yay!

  5. 5
    Juhi says:
    2+

    I went in for the fantasy and left because the romance really did not work for me, for pretty much the same reasons that you list! Don’t feel like continuing this series!

  6. 6
    Juhi says:
    1+

    Darlynne: me too!!

  7. 7
    Juhi says:
    2+

    Ugh. I mean about the comment!

  8. 8
    amy says:
    1+

    I’m looking forward to a review of the next book to see if I want to go there– its been a hard year and I can’t quite decide if I’m ready to try a hard new book or not. I’m finding ‘easy’ books to be boring, so keep rereading books with substance where I can learn more in the reread, rather than venturing into new space.

    I can handle a stressful plotline but NOT a a jerky love interest right now. I need the love story to be solid. And Jack did not fill me confidence in book 1.

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