Book Review: Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Lord of the Islands
Publisher: Ace Books (February 19, 2019)
Length: 544 pages
Author Information: Website
Historical fiction writer Angus Donald begins a new epic fantasy series under his pseudonym Angus Macallan, drawing from his vast experience of living and working in Asia to create a world where nations war, rulers scheme, and in the midst of them all, a powerful sorcerer quietly pursues his bloodthirsty quest for the seven ancient artifacts required to destroy the world.
Gates of the Stone is the first novel of the Lord of the Islands series, and there are quite a few names and places to keep track of in this opening volume. Of the handful of key characters, however, the first of these is sixteen-year-old Princess Katerina of the Empire of the Ice-Bear. The story begins with the wedding between her and a foreign lord, but alas, their union is short-lived as the first thing Katerina does after their marriage is consummated is to jam the full length of a dull blade into the base of her husband’s brain. The princess has loftier ambitions than to be the wife of a mere lordling; she would have been heir to the throne of her homeland had her birthright not been snatched away because she was a woman, and she isn’t about to let this slight go unpunished. Murdering her husband and usurping his power was just the beginning; soon she will take her forces on the road to reclaim her inheritance from her traitorous cousin.
Next, we have Jun, a royal heir in his own right to a small idyllic island kingdom where he spends his days in lassitude working on his art and poetry. But all that peace is shattered one day when his home is invaded by an army led by a fiendish sorcerer, who killed Jun’s father and stole the blessed sword of their royal ancestors. Determined to get it back, Jun endeavors to get over his cowardice and joins a crew of unlikely allies to follow the sorcerer’s trail through pirate-infested seas. Then we have Farhan, who beneath his guise as a middle-aged merchant is actually part of a mercenary group with much larger designs. A man of many debts, Farhan also has a lot invested in the current venture, given that it is his only chance to get the creditors off his back. And finally, there’s Mangku, the dark sorcerer searching for the Seven Keys to fulfill his greatest undertaking in blood magic. A native of Laut Besar who has been shunned and beaten down his whole life, he is now one step closer to holding the power that will make the whole world break.
I’ll be honest, Gates of Stone was a novel that took me quite a while to get into. Much of the first half is not exactly what I would call fast-paced, and a lot of the “excitement” generated throughout the story felt very contrived and manufactured. From Katerina’s cold-blooded murder of her husband to the scene where she offers a fantastic sum of money to a drug addict to castrate himself, or the rape and torture that Jun encounters in the slave mines to the cannibalistic tribes that Farhan and his shipwrecked crewmates find on an island—all these examples were written in a way that made me think the author’s main priority was dramatic or sensationalist effect, which admittedly put me off for most of the book. The story obviously deals with a lot of dark and mature topics, yet unfortunately the presentation of many of these themes came across to me as superficial and overly simplistic, such as Katerina’s meteoric rise to power with little to no resistance, or her portrayal as cruel for the sake of being cruel. To be fair, these criticisms are likely the result of my own personal tastes in writing and storytelling style, but there were simply too many of these examples that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
More concerning to me were the POV characters, most of whom I found difficult to connect with because for the first half of the book they were all so two-dimensional with entire personas that could be summed up in a couple lines. It also didn’t help that they were saddled with very unpleasant flaws, and if readers were meant to find these characters distasteful from the start, I must say Macallan might have done his job a little too well. That said, things did start looking up in the second half as he began beef up both plot development and characterization, although I still found the supporting cast (Captain Lodi, Ketut, Ari, etc.) to be more interesting than our three main characters for the most part.
But here’s what I did like: the world-building of Gates of Stone is to die for, featuring a setting inspired by the island traditions and environments of Indonesia along with a slight smattering of influences from other Asian cultures like China and Japan. Macallan names this fictional region the Laut Besar, containing an archipelago in a tropical stretch of ocean teeming with pirates, slavers, and smugglers trafficking a potent narcotic known as obat. It’s ocean-faring adventures galore for those of us who love maritime fantasy; every place the plot takes us to is full of new wonders to discover. In fact, the world-building details were so richly described and vibrant and full of life, I only wished that our main POV characters had been given the same treatment.
Still, while it might seem like I’m being overly generous with my final rating of Gates of Stone considering all my criticisms, I could not bring myself to give it anything less. It’s true I couldn’t get on board with many of the characters, but at the same time, all this latent potential beneath the surface is proving irresistible and making me curious to find out where this story is headed. I also can’t deny that great leaps and bounds were made in the second half of the novel with regards to the plot and character development, which spells great promise for what’s to come in the sequel. As it stands now, I think the author’s first foray into the fantasy genre was an average but solid entry, and subsequent books are probably where the series’ full potential will be found and realized. As such, I’ll be waiting for news of the next volume with interest.