THE ARM OF THE STONEA novel by Victoria Strauss
(1998, Avon Eos)
The Stone Duology, book 1
After his family is killed for breaking strict laws, a young man sets out to destroy the Guardians responsible, from within.
-- First reading (paperback)
A very deep character study, in a complex and very well-defined world, this book was a joy to read.Spoiler review:
As with some other fantasy worlds, most notably the world of the Darksword, this one is familiar with our current, high-technology world. A thousand years ago, there was a "split", which forced the lands of mindpower (magic) and handpower (technology) into different worlds. In order to maintain the superiority of mindpower over that of the hand, that world became a very strict, Nineteen-eighty-four type of place, with harsh rules applied to everyday life, and ruthless enforcers to make sure people stayed within the Limits. All people with magical ability were put through school, and some became Guardians, a superior race that was able to guide and teach the unGifted. However, when times became difficult, the Guardians usually abandoned those under their authority to plagues and sicknesses.
That is where Bron comes in. The first part of the book shows us how harsh the world is to those without magical powers. Bron and his family are a diverse group. I agreed with his brother Serle, of course, about building a better plough. The others had personalities in their own right, which made it very difficult even on the reader when they died, either from the plague or from the angry villagers. For the secret that Bron carries inside him makes him an enemy to the powers that govern the world. Long before the split, it was his family that cared for the magical Stone, which seems to hold extreme power within itself, but what it actually represents, besides the "soul of the world", is quite vague. An evil man made war on his ancestors, killed them all (except for a baby who survived), and stole the Stone. When the split occurred, he helped establish the order of the world, which has not really changed since then. Bron's family has vowed to retake the Stone when one of great power is born to them. Bron's brother is taken by the Arm of the Stone to be Interrogated and publicly humiliated. Bron, however, using a power he didn't know he had, stops time and frees his brother, causing a chain reaction which leads to the death of everyone in his village.
It was necessary for Bron to lose all of his loved ones and everything he considered dear, before his power could be developed. By then, there was nothing left to be taken from him. I do object to the quick way Bron learned to control his Gift, however. One moment it is too powerful to control, and the next, he can channel it easily. Everybody else has to be trained in their Gifts. Bron should not be an exception, even if he is a saviour.
What I particularly liked about this book was the way we were able to get inside Bron's mind, and later, Liliane's. There was very little dialog through the book. This is fortunate, because when people spoke, even -especially- the ones with "superior intellects", the dialog was rather simplistic. The narrative, however, was very engaging. Descriptions were not overly detailed, but descriptions of emotions were amazingly depicted. The only part of the narrative I didn't like was the recitation of prayers and choruses. These gave us insights into the world, but I'm sure they could have been done another way, as it became tedious.
Liliane is the main character in the second part of the book. We know that Bron has vowed to destroy the Arm of the Stone, and that he will likely try to do this by becoming a Guardian. However, we don't get to see his Novice years. Instead, Liliane shows us what the Novice years are like. We can assume that Bron's time in the Novice wing would be quite similar. Liliane had to endure hazing rituals and unexplained punishments, something we know that with Bron's anger he would have difficulty doing. While Liliane survived her Novice years by retreating inside herself, Bron was more like Goldwine, who rebelled against all this unfair treatment. They couldn't accept these things as simply Tests of their Guardianship. As with Bron, I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Liliane, and was sorry to see her disappear from the tale for a long time.
When we rejoin Bron in the following section, he has graduated to become an Apprentice as a Journeyer, and is immediately picked to become part of the Arm of the Stone. He found this to be an ideal place from which to carry out his vow, but as the years progress, he finds his lifestyle and mindset changing with his experience and maturity. All he ever knew was vengeance, but within his special place in the Arm, he found companions, which he never had when he was young, not even before his family was killed. He discovers, however, that his Mentor is bent on changing the Arm of the Stone to replace its barbaric torture and cruelty with guidance. It was the cruelty that caused Bron to take up his vow in the first place, so changing the Arm is more-or-less the same as destroying it -in its current form, anyway. Even still, the officers that he encountered in his youth didn't seem to be corrupt, though the punishments were public and extraordinarily harsh, given the crime. In his time with the Arm, Bron realized that his brother was a Violator, and that his actions could not be tolerated.
This section of the book was by far the most interesting, as we see complete shifts in perspective from Bron. We also come to understand why the Limits exist, and perhaps even to sympathize with the Guardians in a way not thought possible by the end of the first section. Although the Limits are very harsh, requiring formal requests for change to even the most basic hand tools, they can be easily explained by a very conservative culture. They were created as a very reasonable countermeasure to the feared alternative, the technological world that we live in. We first saw the Limits through Bron's eyes as he was a victim of them, as unreasonable barriers to progress, but then we move to another viewpoint: the Limits as barriers to losing their souls. On the other hand, it also made life difficult for everyday people. The world remained decidedly medieval, with recreation available only to the rich, for the poorer people had no time or energy for it. In other words, the world they live in was stagnant.
It also occurred to me during this portion of the book that the Tale Bron had been taught in his youth might be wrong. Perhaps his ancestor really was evil, as the official History taught, and Percival actually did rescue the Stone. That would have been interesting, but was not to be, although nothing definite occurs to prove the Tale by the end, either.
We get a brief glimpse of Jolyon in this section, a man who enjoys torture and the pain of others. He had victimized both Bron and Liliane as Novices, and he continued to do so with Liliane as an Apprentice. The man is very hateable, and the author does a good job at showing us just how despicable he is. Jolyon gains more power by becoming part of the Arm, as well.
As for Liliane, she graduated, and put her Gift as a heartsenser to good use. However, in the fourth part of the book, Jolyon assigns her to spy on Bron, who is known as Selwyn. Selwyn took his Mentor's policies to greater levels, very quickly, trying to change the Arm of the Stone within a few short years. This gains him enemies within the Arm, ordinary Guardians, and unGifted, as well. The general populace, however, liked the reforms that he was implementing. His work was so good, however, that even Liliane, the best heartsenser of her time, could not find any fault with him. Putting aside her actual mission, I thought Liliane would actually like the new way of the Arm, given that she was subject to its cruelty so often earlier in her life.
When she can't find any Violation in his ways, she uses another tact, which proves successful. She was told to sleep with Selwyn if she had to, but instead, she falls in love with him. She discovers, as does Selwyn, that studying somebody's every nuance for so long creates an intimacy as well as more personal contact. Selwyn studied her long and hard, as well, knowing that she was a spy. I would think that given his suspicion, he must have certainly known about her secret meetings to give her reports.
I didn't understand what kind of Violation of the Paths of Thought Selwyn was guilty of. What is an "unfit woman"? Somebody who was ungifted? Liliane must have believed that the little bundle Selwyn carried out of the woman's house was a stillborn baby, or else what?
While Liliane might have fallen in love with Selwyn, and he with her, that changed when she found his workroom, filled with Violations. For, as I guessed would happen, Bron rejoined his brother in Britannia, to try and make power of the Mind and of the Hand equal, to bring Balance to the world. After speaking with his brother, he believed that the split occurred because the Hand became more powerful than the Mind. Another split becomes inevitable, then, because the Mind is so much more powerful than the Hand in this world. She manages to trick him when he tries to erase her memory, and he is arrested and brought back to the Fortress for punishment.
I think there was too much change between the time when Bron agreed to join Marhalt's group of conspirators, to his new conspiracy to bring Balance to Hand and Mind. We didn't get to see it develop, as we should have. It was not enough to see it in hindsight as told from Bron to Liliane. I didn't see enough motivation. As it stands, Bron seems to me to be incapable of maintaining a vow that he made. His vows became more complicated, and because of that, everything he made was destroyed. In fact, the book allowed so many years to pass between chapters that it sometimes felt disjointed. It would have been nice to bridge those gaps more often.
The last section rushes us to the climax of the book. It was nice to see the entire previous section summarized from Bron's point of view, confirming a lot of what I suspected. Aside from plot reasons, it is not made clear why Selwyn and his Zosterians dropped the celibacy rule. Was the Arm founder not celibate, as they modelled him in every way they could? I had been wondering how Selwyn's lovers avoided becoming pregnant, as he had so many. Those with magical power must be able to abort on their own (as implied by Jolyon when talking about Liliane). Did Selwyn do it for the ungifted women? He would have undoubtedly kept track of any heirs, as after his brother is killed, he believes himself to be the last of his family. It is never explained why Selwyn put a charm on the woman Elene's name in the Catalogue. I'm guessing that he removed the knowledge of her Gifted status, so she would not be brought to Guardian school and discovered, as she was endowing Violation technology with magical power.
By the time Bron ends up in the jail cell, and his powers have been curbed, I was really ready for a Nineteen-eighty-four type of ending, with Bron failing at his task. I was actually hoping for this, but with a twist that he continued to live to instruct his child, or something like that. I would have liked him to join Goldwine's bandits and force the change he needed to bring about.
Unfortunately, I found the last chapter to be a little disappointing, because it was rushed compared to the other developments in the book, and because Bron seemed to become way too powerful. I felt that he should have had to struggle a little, and to see the reactions of Jolyon and the Prior, for example. Instead, he walks right into the garden of the Stone and steals it. According to Goldwine's prophecy he will take it into our technological world through a Gate, and they will eventually meet again. It's unfortunate that she also predicts Liliane's death.
However, the book itself is very engaging, even the last chapter. It is the plot development that I object to, not the chapter itself, which was written with the same amount of contemplation, wonder and detail as the rest of the book (complete with the very common use of the word "toward"!).
The world felt very real, and the style of writing was amazing. I like reading about what people said, as opposed to reading the lines as spoken by the characters. Reading about discussions gives them an emotional flavour that we can't get from simple dialog. I very much look forward to the sequel.
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