Title: A Cast of Stones
Author: Patrick W. Carr
Publisher: Bethany House
Edition: Advanced Reading Copy (LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program)
Series Title: The Staff and the Sword (book 1)
First Line: Smells of earth and dung drifted slowly past the fog in Errol’s brain.
A Cast of Stones (“releasing this spring”) is Patrick W. Carr’s first novel, and it is a fast, fun, comparatively light read. The first of a series, it’s a bit non-traditional as far as fantasy series go in that it is tightly focused on a single individual, Errol Stone. I found that departure a refreshing change from the typically expansive and sweeping worlds that come out time and again in this particular genre. In fact, the back cover text claims that ACoS is “in the tradition of George R. R. Martin,” and not only do I disagree with that statement, I think it does ACoS a tremendous disservice. I love Martin, and have gobbled up much of his work from Dreamsongs to his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but there is little similarity between the styles of the two authors or the scope of their respective series.
The most obvious difference is the cast of characters. Martin’s focus is on the world he created, specifically the land of Westeros. He is relating a slice of history and telling the stories of the major figures of that history. Through book 5, he has had a total of 26 different PoV characters, with 18 in book 5 alone. Hell, just in book 1, there are 71 named characters!
Carr pares this down to a single PoV character (with one exception), and the story is his. I actually see more similarity in style to Brandon Sanderson’s first book in the Mistborn trilogy or The Alloy of Law, so if you liked those, you’ll probably enjoy ACoS.
Errol Stone, a 19 year old orphan (hence the last name Stone), has been the village drunk since he was 14. ACoS follows him as he gets swept into a web of intrigue and action that leads him from his small, remote home to the capital city and an audience with the King. But Errol never really knows what is going on, and most of the time all he wants to do is go back to his village in and have some ale. He is the epitome of the reluctant hero, and at times even borders on an anti-hero as he does what he must to survive alone and so far from home.
One of the strongest elements I found within the story was how Carr handled revealing information. Told in a tight 3rd person limited point of view, he is particularly adept at only sharing what Errol knows. Even if the characters around Errol are withholding information, specifically Martin and Luis, the two who compel Errol to leave home, Carr handles it extremely well. First he lets Errol figure out that they are hiding information from him, and then he lets that affect his PoV character. Frustration, anger, sadness – Carr is adept at letting Errol’s character build and progress through not just the action, but also through the moments of inaction along his physical, emotional, and mental journey. And that journey is finely crafted. It is, in many ways, a coming of age story for Errol as well as a more traditional hero’s quest storyline.
On the flip side, I thought the majority of the secondary characters were quite static and almost stereotyped caricatures. There was little (if any) change in the three characters who leave home with Errol, and very little chance for growth in the characters Errol meets along the way. Though that stasis in the secondary characters is one of the biggest flaws in the book, it didn’t affect my enjoyment because of the other primary strength in Carr’s writing style…
Pacing. To say I couldn’t put the book down isn’t much of an overstatement. Had I not started a new semester this week, I likely would have read it cover to cover in a single sitting. Instead, I read it in 3, with the final half of the book keeping me up well past my usual bedtime on a school night. Because of the tight focus on Errol, this book moves (and reads) fast. While the description of the worldbuilding is solid, it isn’t as extensive and detailed as it is in traditional fantasy novels. Carr let’s us know the basics of Errol’s world, which fits perfectly with Errol’s limited knowledge of anything outside of his little village. The sense of immediacy is integral to the way in which Carr unfolds the story. More time is spent in action, and it pays off as we watch Errol struggle, grow, and adapt from one situation to the next. Of particular note is how well Carr moves from chapter to chapter. He doesn’t quite use Dickensian cliff-hangers, but it’s close. Those breaks are extremely well done and help urge the reader on into the next scene.
There are a few problems with ACoS, however, two of which I found quite glaring. The first is a spinoff from the flat, stereotypical secondary characters. There is little originality in the makeup of these characters – the warrior, the scholar, the sorcerer. They are stereotyped not just in their creation, but also in their arrangement within the group and their function within the story itself. At times it felt like a well written D&D campaign. Add in the people Errol meets along the way – especially the folksy “Obi-wan” type character who teaches him to fight and the slew of cliched cutouts Errol travels with as a caravan guard – and only the excellent pacing saves many parts of the story.
Until the Epilogue, anyway, when even the pacing couldn’t save it. From the very first page of the novel, Errol was the focus of the story. The reader only knows what he knows, and when Errol makes a discovery, the reader does as well. That disappears in the Epilogue, which Errol isn’t even in. Instead, it shifts to two of the secondary characters in an effort to set up the conflict for the next book in the series. And it’s a shame, because not only doesn’t it have anything to do with the story that was just told, but what it sets up has been fairly obvious (at least to me) for half the book. It comes across as a marketing decision for the next book, and left a bit of a sour taste when I finally flipped the book closed.
That said, I still recommend the book to fantasy fans. Just don’t read the Epilogue, that’s all. Much of the charm of A Cast of Stones rests squarely on the shoulders of Errol. He is charming, compelling, and Carr’s ability to let him live and learn on the page is the strongest part of the novel.