A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr
Ridiculously simplified summary: In a vaguely-Medieval world, drink-addicted teen Errol Stone takes a mysterious message to a local priest's remote home. When an assassin tries to murder him on the way, Errol finds himself caught up in a world of intrigue. He discovers he has an amazing talent, which is much coveted by the Church. When he is separated from his party, he learns to fight. But he's needed in the capital, where he must help choose the next king...
Content: The Church is less than likable, and there's very little reference to Christianity, though there are references to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (with new names) and a scene of taking Communion early on. The Church casts lots and reads hidden words in these lots in order to discern the future.
There are references to the Holy Spirit, but for whatever reason, their significance flew by me as insignificant until they were bluntly recapped in Book 2 of the series, The Hero's Lot.
There is quite a bit of violence--I don't remember being disgusted, exactly, but sometimes it was described in detail--and some monsters.
Compelling: 4 out of 10. The first chapter was interesting enough to draw me in and make me request to be in the blog tour. But I'm actually not a fan of epic fantasy with tales of kings or church conspiracies. And Errol is a character who doesn't know what is going on and shows very little initiative or interest in doing anything at the beginning. By the end, the other characters as much as admit he's a pawn!
So it was my own fault for requesting a book I should have known wouldn't interest me. But I didn't really care for the whole arc with Luis and Martin from the church, which starts early on and continues until about page 146. And after page 300 or so, when the story returned to the church and the monarchy, I lost interest again, with more than 100 pages to go. I didn't feel the ending had any resolution to speak of, either. Aside from surviving, I don't feel like any goals were achieved in the last portion. Not only did I feel it wasn't a complete story, but it didn't even cut off at a part I found interesting.
I know I've gotten irritated at books lately for adding a chapter where everything goes wrong just to make the reader want to continue. But this book doesn't even wrap up neatly to begin with, and then there's an extra chapter that I didn't find surprising at all, given the entire story is about Errol.
Those concerns aside, between these "epic fantasy" bookends, Errol has his own journey. During this lengthy break, Errol is on his own, learns to fight, and otherwise has goals of his own (okay, near the end of this portion, his goal is caused by a compulsion cast on him, but still). The characters with him have relatable goals as well. (Yes, wanting to be rich is a tangible goal that I can sympathize with.) I enjoyed this middle portion, and if the whole book would have been more like it, I would have come away liking the book.
Characters: 4 out of 10. Again, the issue is that I feel like in a sense there are two books here. I found the characters in the middle of the book interesting, if not that finely drawn, and Errol's journey was somewhat interesting. I had a lot of trouble, however, because few of the characters had clear motivations, which made the characters more flat and also made the storyline harder to follow. Everyone wants to choose the new king, I guess, but I didn't find that motivation compelling. I'd go so far as to say that I dislike every person associated with the church, which includes many major characters. And I still don't know what Errol is after. (Near the end, a character Errol had considered a friend notes that Errol is looking for family, so I guess that's his goal? The character also coldly notes that none of the people he's spent a good time trying to befriend can be that. Ouch.)
Writing/editing: 7 out of 10. Some of the reviews on Goodreads have some rather harsh criticism of the writing style. I didn't have any major complaints on that front for this book...it is from Errol's point of view throughout, so if parts sound like they were written by a teenager (as at least one reviewer complained), that's not inappropriate. But I saw a few typos and several parts where the writing was confusing. One place near the end was so odd that I flipped back to the previous page and reread it more than once to make sure I hadn't missed anything.
(p. 407) Cruk signaled to a guardsman who passed by with a flagon of water. He took a long pull from it and then handed it to Errol. "Let's go see what the abbot can tell us."
Errol moved to follow, then scanned the crowd.
He found her kneeling on the floor beside the king's steward, pressing her hands against a gaping wound in his side. The man wouldn't live, she had to know that, but no hint of it showed in her face or the glorious green of her eyes. Errol couldn't hear her words, but her face and posture carried assurance and comfort. Blood soaked her gown.
As far as I can tell, the "her" referred to here wasn't mentioned anywhere earlier in the chapter (though the middle of 407 does reference Cilla, a tavern-owner or ale server, which just adds to the confusion). The reader should have a guess who this person is from the color of her eyes, but I still feel like I was missing something. I think this book could have used some more editing, but overall I didn't feel that the writing got in the way of the story.
Plausibility/believability: 3 out of 5. I'm sure Carr put a lot of thought into the world, but somehow I just didn't feel drawn in. I don't feel like I "saw" the (nicely-named) Cripples area, the forests, even the towns. The idea of the lots is interesting, but also confounding, since it's unclear why they don't use the lots more often, and why these supposedly predictive devices fail so often (though the latter could be a plot point in a later book). The writing about the staff and fighting techniques were a highlight, and read "real" to me.
Positive: 2 out of 5. At first, I thought the whole idea that a drunken lout would be inexplicably Chosen was a parallel to the Christian life (and was honestly boring, because who wants to read about someone who can't better themselves but has to rely on God to do it?). At any rate, Errol seems to becomes a better, stronger person through his own free will and the teaching of a great warrior--certainly not through faith in or obvious assistance from any sort of higher power.
And everyone is considered a pawn in the quest to find a new king, but I still don't understand why finding that king is so important in the first place. It left me kind of depressed, since friendships seem to mean nothing in this world.
Gut reaction: 2 out of 5. Something else that really bothered me was the portrayal of women. Again, I thought the middle was better on that front, with two women warriors (!) out of a group of 15--nothing groundbreaking about those women, but they were there. Otherwise, women were relegated to minor and (I thought) dull roles. To the best of my recollection, the only other ones with any personality are a farm mother/daughter, an innocent herbalist (and they're all considered evil in this world), and a princess. At least three women--and certainly the two with the most personality--are in love with Errol. Actually, I felt like all the women of any importance who were portrayed as being in the right age range were in love with him, which I couldn't enjoy.
(I'm even more annoyed that he spends so much time thinking it's unfair that someone else from his town is so perfect and that the women all love him, when by the end he's unbelievably strong, apparently handsome, and several women are in love with him.)
Bonus points: 5 out of 5.
Recommended for: Fans of epic fantasy with lots of talking and reference to the church, but light Christian elements.
Total Rating: 2.7 out of 5 stars
Either Tuesday or Wednesday I'll talk about the second book, The Hero's Lot...not certain I'll be able to finish it, but I'm trying.
Here are the tour participants!
Emma or Audrey Engel
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
*In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book.