Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher

Medium: Audiobook and Ebook

Overview (No Spoilers)

Sarah’s Thoughts:
Fletcher has concocted a gruesome literary world that is navigated from the unique perspective of a villain suffering from a form of amnesia. Khraen spends much of his time pondering if one can change for the better despite the horrors executed in the past, as his foggy memories are slowly recovered. Or perhaps this perspective is twofold, and while Khraen wrestles with the man he wants to be, we are instead seeing how one becomes a villain through various justifications and compromises that seem like ‘relatively’ reasonable choices at the time. Regardless, it was a novel point of view that I struggle to find a comparison for in recent literature. I highly appreciate when any author can come up with a story that does not yield easily to making parallel connections.

The beginning is brutal and hard to read. While I don’t want to give away too much about why this section of the book was a struggle, it makes sense in the context of the story. As Khraen learns more about the world around him and gathers his strength, a touch of humanity goes a long way in securing the reader’s attention, especially as magic starts to play a more central role. In many ways, the world development is limited by Khraen, who is just as blind to the world around him as the reader, but as his understanding develops, the reader experiences the same realizations simultaneously. That said, cringeworthy scenes continue to spring up from time to time in surprising detail that will make the audiobook reader want to be a bit more conscious of who is around if the book is playing out loud, or perhaps refrain from listening to it while eating a meal.

The cast is surprisingly small, despite how much traveling takes place throughout the story. The foundation has been laid for those aforementioned characters, with Fletcher leaving much of the backstories as fodder for further depth and development in future books, while alluding to the complexity enough to keep the reader intrigued, especially regarding Khraen, Nhil, and Henka. Poor Shalayn seems relatively normal in comparison, however she also contains her own elements of mystery and now motivation. Overall, Black Stone Heart is a much darker read than I would typically be drawn to, but the unusual perspective, when paired with the fascinating magical realm, worked to keep me engrossed and pondering throughout. Sarah’s rating: 8/10

Jennie’s Thoughts

Surely the end justifies the means.

Michael R. Fletcher launches The Obsidian Path series with a dark fantasy book that, to me, reads like an origin story for the main character. Black Stone Heart opens on Khraen as he comes to in the woods with extensive memory loss that leaves him more feral than not. As he slowly picks up the pieces of his past, Khraen rejoins civilization and starts to realize just how different he is from the man he used to be. One of the biggest questions is: how will his past shape his future? Along the way, two very different women take an interest in Khraen for who he was, is, and could be. As each helps to fill in the blanks about the world around him, Khraen rightfully challenges their sources and motivations – at least he tries to when he’s not distracted by their feminine wiles. This is a unique and thought-provoking narrative that constantly ponders morality. Where is the line between right and wrong? Is it okay to do bad things for the right reasons? Who decides what is right anyway? The storyline explores whether one is a product of their circumstances or predestined to end up a certain way, the age-old debate of nature versus nurture.

I really enjoyed starting out with a bare-bones version of the protagonist who is driven solely by the need to survive before slowly layering in aspects that are key to human nature. Setting it up this way left me wanting to know where the plot would pivot next. I would also say that the opening scenes hint at the violence (and its validations) to come. It turns out that having Khraen follow his heart results in a lot of death, so consider yourself warned. As Khraen rediscovers himself, it was a nice touch to have echoes of Khraen’s old self influence his present situations with brief memories that flit in and out and instincts that are unexpected; however, this tactic does grow a little repetitive as time goes on. As more is revealed, Khraen starts to feel fragmented between the past and present versions of himself, forcing him to face his demons. In general, I thought the pacing of the story was excellent up until the last third of the book, where an increasingly character-driven storyline is favored. With a well-established goal at that point, more time is spent delving into internal conflicts than I would have liked.

Although the draft that I received had some grammatical, punctuation, and formatting issues, I found the writing style captivating right from the start. Just like Khraen evolves over the course of the story, so do the other key characters beyond the initial backgrounds the reader is introduced to. While some details are more predictable than others, Fletcher has forged a multifaceted supporting cast. Additionally, the world that Fletcher has dreamed up is extensive, with a vast number of mythical creatures inhabiting various otherworldly locations; however, the majority of these places are noted in passing as ‘what once was.’ Similarly, many different branches of magic are referenced in this tale, but the use of magic itself is limited throughout the text. Based on how things wrap up in Black Stone Heart, it’s easy to see how future installments could expand in these areas. Overall, Fletcher has crafted a complex and intriguing tale that focuses on the love, pain, and betrayal that Khraen experiences as he attempts to put his life back together again. As gruesome as this story is, I’d kill to find out what the next book has in store! Jennie’s Rating: 7.5/10

Kelley’s Thoughts

In this grimdark novel, we follow Khraen, a ‘dark soul’ who has a shattered heart made of obsidian. The pieces of his heart have been spread out and hidden across various nations and oceans, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. He feels an overwhelming pull to find other pieces of his heart, but with each recovered piece, he regains fractured memories from an increasingly dark past life. Khraen wrestles with who he is now and who he was in the past.

The novel is brimming with fantasy- wizards and magic, necromancers and demonologists. We find out early on that Khraen has an immense disdain for wizards, but he is not exactly sure why. This prejudice runs him into quite few predicaments as wizards are revered and hold the highest offices in the nations. As with our own world, those who hold the power are the ones that write history- and that holds true in Black Stone Heart as well. The history of the old world has been cleansed and hidden, and the more we learn about Khraen and his dark past, the more the heavy handed editing of the history of this world is revealed.

The world building in Black Stone Heart was vivid. I felt like I was there and could see and feel the towns, towers, and floating mountains we encountered along the way. While the first half of the book was fast paced and interesting as Khraen and Shalayn are traveling, working, and trying to uncover his past, the last half is essentially free of any worthwhile events or forward progress. We experience the same activities, e.g. lots of necromancy over and over again, while also revisiting the same debates within the internal monologue of Khraen, to the point that I had to check to see if I was rereading the same pages.

As a fan of normally darker stories, I was excited to read a novel from the point of view of the villain. However, even though we were left with an interesting cliff-hanger, I don’t find myself yearning to find out what happens next due to how predictable many of the other events in the book were. Kelley’s Rating: 6.5/10

Stephanie’s Thoughts

Our memories define us.

The problem for Khraen is that he has no memories.  When he first regains consciousness, all Khraen knows is hunger and a desire to survive no matter what cost.  As he clings to life and a slow return of strength, Khraen recovers some of his past, but only small tantalizing bits that leave him more confused than before; still his memories beckon, calling him south, out of the deep forest and into civilization.  With each bit that returns, Khraen feels both exciting possibility and deep horror for the man he once was.  The rest of the story (difficult to summarize without giving too much away) details Khraen’s struggle with his past and his uncertain future.  What does it mean to be evil?  Do the ends ever justify the means?

Fletcher has written an original tale, the plot of which moves along steadily, even as the protagonist struggles with deep philosophical questions about good and evil.  The fact that Khraen remembers almost nothing of his past is a clever way to help the reader learn about this world as the protagonist does; there are no massive info dumps here.  I was also completely intrigued by the world Fletcher built, where wizards and demonologists are mortal enemies and the present is but a ruin of a grand empire from the distant past.  The magic systems were interesting and had fresh spins on old ideas; the parts of the story I loved best were these tidbits about magical realms and the rules for how each worked.  

Black Stone Heart is a story about memories, or a lack of them, and how a person’s view of their past can shape the possibilities of their future.  Khraen walks the line between antihero and villain wavering between the two roles as he pieces together his past.  At the heart of his struggle is the question of whether a soul should be judged as good or evil based on a resume of deeds, or if there is room for redemption, a washing away of previous sins, if one resolves to take a better path moving forward.  Khraen seems to judge others differently than himself; despite his previous misdeeds, he believes his choices moving forward are what define him.  However, he has no problem meting out horrific fates to those he believes stained in their own way as thieves, rapists and murderers.

One of the challenges Black Stone Heart faces is that each reader will bring their own ideas of morality to the story.  A person with a strong sense of right and wrong, good and evil will be difficult to persuade that Khraen is making acceptable choices, even though he justifies them in his own mind.  That reader can only look on in repugnance as he continues down an ever darker path. Stephanie’s Rating: 7.5/10

The Critiquing Chemist and her Bookish Boffins Average Rating: 7.5/10

Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):

  • Did it make anyone else uncomfortable that the protagonist has black skin and is referred to as a “stained soul”? It feels like an ugly fictional confirmation of the real-world historical perception of dark skin being equated to dirty, sinful, or unattractive.
  • If Khraen doesn’t remember his past at the very beginning of the novel, why is he so quick to violence? It seemed to be more than just the ‘run of the mill’ survival animal instinct.
  • Why didn’t Khraen ask more about his history from his forgotten (potential) friend Nhil? And why is Nhil so loyal to Khraen? Khraen really isn’t very nice to the old, formerly bound demon. Could Nhil turn on him? What would happen if other versions of Khraen show up at the castle?
  • For being some crazy powerful, smart former emperor, Khraen makes rash and rushed decisions that seem out of character and unnecessary. However, Henka is usually the bad influence behind these decisions. 
  • I struggled with Fletcher’s description of Henka; how many times can you point out how flawless a person’s figure is? And the necromancy scenes in which Henka assembles her ‘flawless’ body, especially while healing from the extensive fire damage, were some of the most difficult for me to read. The material is indeed fitting for the grimdark genre. That said, if I never hear (or read) “warm for you” ever again, it will be all too soon. 
  • Why is there so much focus on comparing Henka’s appearance to Shalayn? It felt a bit gratuitous and unnecessary.
  • If people are reborn, are demonologists dwindling the human race by feeding souls to demons?
  • After the showdown with Valcarb, what will the Guild do now that they know that someone or something is meddling with demons? Are any of the original wizards still around who knew the first incarnation of Khraen?
  • If it’s been thousands of years since the Great War, why hasn’t the Demon Emperor fully returned yet? How many times has Khraen been reborn? Why does Henka root specifically for this version of Khraen? Has she also been spying on the other Khraens with her undead legion? Would Henka have tried ensconcing herself with a different shard if Khraen had stayed with Shalayn?
  • Why didn’t Henka forbid Khraen from returning to his castle, especially since that’s where he found out who she really is? How would Nhil have responded if Henka had shown up?
  • If Henka is Khraen’s wife, why did necromancers back the wizards during the Great War? What happened that would keep her from telling Khraen about her connection to him? What is she hoping to change this time around? 
  • It was strangely convenient that Henka and Khraen have so much chemistry so quickly- does she have power over him to make him feel this way? How much is she directing their path to select which pieces of his heart should be found next?
  • Did Khraen the First have Henka’s heart? Would he have given it back to her, like how he allegedly freed Nhil? Otherwise, where is Henka’s heart? Who has it? Does Khraen’s past hold the secret?
  • Why is Henka surprised to learn that one of Khraen’s shards was in a wizard’s tower? How did the shards of obsidian end up where they did? Why are there shards at all? I’m guessing Khraen broke himself, but what was it that drove Khraen to consider breaking apart his heart in the first place?
  • Was there a grand plan in how Khraen’s obsidian heart was split in terms of the memories each piece holds? Did Henka know which shard she was waking up first? If so, how did Henka know a shard was buried at that spot? Has she woken up other shards? Why did whoever shattered Khraen’s heart put him in a young, healthy body? How were there other bodies also searching for pieces of the heart?
  • How did Tien know about that specific ring in the wizard’s tower and that it would send Khraen away? Once back in Taramlae, where is Shalayn actually when Khraen thought she’d been abducted by wizards? Had she rented another room at the Dripping Bucket and that’s why Tien talked Khraen out of staying there before ‘robbing’ Thalman? And after being betrayed by Tien, why didn’t Khraen try using the portal demon to travel to the Dripping Bucket to see if it was actually destroyed? He never trusted Tien before, why now?
  • When Khraen returns to the bolthole from the brothel, he notices that ‘Tien had stripped it of supplies, left the shelves barren.’ Shouldn’t that have made it impossible for Khraen to return to it? Did Khraen remember just enough about the room that there weren’t any other options for the portal demon to confuse it with?
  • When Khraen suggests going to his mud shack to escape any Guild scouts, Henka ‘shook her head, eyes wide with fear.’ Why doesn’t Henka want to go north? Is it something about the location itself? Would the time it takes to return south have put a wrench in her plans? I mean, she did choose the boat herself…
  • Given that the Captain of the Habnikaav recognizes Khraen’s name, what does the Captain know about him? Why did he name his ship after the Empire’s flagship? Do Henka and Khraen really believe they can pick off crew members one by one to suit their blood needs without notice?
  • What a cliffhanger! Who is the other woman aboard the Habnikaav? Is it Shalayn, either to exact her revenge or perhaps under Henka’s influence? Or did Henka revive Tien against Khraen’s wishes (something Henka doesn’t seem to have a problem with)? Is this how she was able to carry all of the supplies from the hotel in Nachi?
  • What will they find on the island of PalTaq? Will Khraen finally wield Kantlament? Will Khraen want to use the sword on his god? Who is Khraen’s god? Is it Yahaarn? Are the gemstone eyes a means for controlling him?

Vocabulary Builder:

Bolthole: a place of escape or refuge

Caliginous: misty, dark

Millinery: the business or work of a milliner, which is a person who designs, makes, trims, or sells women’s hats

Ordure: excrement

Riven: divided into pieces or factions

Spoor: a trace by which the progress of someone or something may be followed

Twig: notice, observe

Wend: to direct one’s course; travel


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