I selected Stonehill Downs for a "diverse reads" review because fantasy tends to be overwhelmingly filled with white people and settings based on European culture, myths, legends, and figures. Stonehill Downs has a black protagonist, and her experience of the traditional pseudo-European fantasyland is quite different.
When the mangled corpses of citizens start appearing among the remote villages and hills of the Stonehill Downs, it's up to Mal and Avani to figure out why. Mal is the newly named Vocent, a powerful necromancer sworn to the king's service. Avani is a shepherdess and weaver with latent powers of her own. Displaced from her island home, she has made her living on the Stonehill Downs. Now that murder and dark magic threaten her new life, she joins Mal in his attempt to seek out the truth and stop the bloodshed.
Review: 4 Stars!!! Yeah!
Let's get the bad out of the way first. I give this one four stars because the characters made up for any problems I had with the plot.
Don't get me wrong -- the plot was great! The mystery of the murders, Avani's backstory, the way the writer gradually revealed more and more of the fantasy world -- it was all well-structured and unfolded naturally. Until the end.
Towards the end, we're introduced these weird god-beings with a weird fantasy-ish-pseudo-Celtic-type name. We're asked to accept these creatures with zero explanation. I imagine Remy thought she was leaving a clear trail of breadcrumbs to this revelation, but I was taken totally by surprise.
I followed who the suspects for the murders were supposed to be, and what the underlying motive was -- that made sense. Making the jump from that to these mythical creatures was a leap too far. Are they vampires? Gods? Feyfolken? It was a great buildup to a poor delivery. Perhaps the "big twist" was related to mythology. All fantasy inevitably draws on myth to some extent.
But where I really want to critique this "twist" is in its revelation to the main character, Avani. Avani is a black islander living among white people in a European-ish country. She maintains her own religion, artistic practices, and cultural beliefs.
That means that she, like the reader, has no frame of reference culturally for the narrative's big "twist." This makes her the perfect avatar to actually explain this to us, the very confused readers. Which didn't happen. After the initial shock, Avani acts like she knows exactly what's going on.
And I didn't. And that annoyed me. I so badly wanted to like this, but I can't love a book when I don't know what's going on.
Love triangle: Best part of the book?
This love triangle was fascinating. And I don't often say that.
Mal and Avani have sexual tension, although their different personalities and cultures cause friction between them. Mal can also be an immature jackass, and Avani a stubborn hothead, so there's plenty of fuel for conflict.
Then there's the tiny detail that Mal is married...to a dead woman.
Mal is a necromancer and his familiar is his dead wife, Siobhan. At first, it seems like a partnership of equals based on true love that transcends the grave. But the more you read, the more it becomes clear that this relationship is unhealthy, codependent, and creepy. So fucking creepy.
It was awesome. I love horror. I love fantasy. Fantasy-horror mashups are my favorite. Speaking of which...
Screw you, fantasy, necromancers are awesome
In most fantasy, kings with necromancer advisers/enforcers are automatically evil. Death? Evil! Necromancy? Super evil!
Stonehill Downs does a different take. Mal is a public servant. He uses necromancy to investigate and solve crimes. He has a secret evil necromancer lab...which is a fantasy version of a modern forensics lab.
The magic in the book was pretty interesting. In some respects, it's severely limited; in others, very powerful. Avani also has latent magical talent, although she resists the way her adoptive homeland treats magi. As a magus, she would be forced to swear service to the state, because people consider unattached magi too dangerous.
Fantasy cultures and representation
Obviously, authors are limited in how they represent real-world ethnicity and cultures in fantasy settings. However, fantasy writers are still writing for a real-world audience. The fantasy novel becomes a place where writers can subvert, challenge, or avoid tropes of race and cultural difference.
For example, in Avani's culture, magic is considered a gift from the divine. Mal is an unapologetic atheist, and he demands Avani let him train her and form her experience to better fit that of his own culture and beliefs.
Unsurprisingly, she refuses. As a former refugee and a minority in her adopted homeland, she doesn't feel the need to assimilate in order to be accepted. In fact, she finds many of their practices weird and frequently nags Mal about his familiar, which her culture considers a curse. This is a viewpoint he -- and his creepy dead bride -- definitely don't appreciate.
Have I mentioned how much I love horror fantasy? I really, really love it.
Learning to find common ground is a key part of the romance that develops over the course of the novel. I'm pleased to say that while Stonehill Downs illustrates a strong bond, it leaves the resolution of the romance open-ended.
Like I said, a lot of fantasy is based on white ethnic groups, cultures, and myths. Stonehill Downs is set in a European-based fantasy kingdom, but the reader experiences that setting through the eyes of the black female protagonist. As such, the European-esque culture, religion, beliefs, and dress are not accepted as a norm from which all other cultures deviate. Quite the opposite, in fact. Avani's perspective becomes a lens for examination and critique.
Even though I didn't understand the ending very well, I highly recommend Stonehill Downs. I'll definitely be checking out the sequel.