A Song of Stone

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Publisher: Abacus (1997)

ISBN: 0 31664 172 3

Précis: The war is ending, perhaps ended. For the castle and its occupants the troubles are just beginning. Armed gangs roam its lawless land where each farm and house supports a column of dark smoke. Taking to the roads with the other refugees, anonymous in their raggedness, seems safer than remaining in the ancient keep. However, the lieutenant of an outlaw band has other ideas, and the castle becomes the focus for a dangerous game of desire deceit and death.

Be warned! To proceed reading below here is to risk spoilers about the story of the book. It is recommended that you proceed only after having first read the novel.

Summary: Abel and Morgan, two voltunarily estranged members of nobility, have finally decided that to remain in their ancestral home is too dangerous to continue. So they have packed a scant few essential belongings and joined a thronging crowd of refugees and started to leave the region. Barely have they begun this journey when they run into an armed band which has recently been involved in a brief fight. Forced to kill one of her own men, due to a lack of suitable medical facilities, the Lieutenant decides to appropriate the castle as a base of operations to give her and her men a chance to rest a little as well as evaluate the surrounding countryside with the assitance of some local knowledge.

Such is provided by Abel, who has been identified as the Lord of the lands and both he & Morgan are forced to return to their castle as unwilling 'guests' of the Lieutenant and her men. However some looters have already moved in on the castle so a brief skirmish ensues as control of the castle is regained. Settling in the Lieutenants group makes itself comfortable, hanging to survivors of the looting group as a warning to others. Abel is then pressed into service to provide information about the countryside around the castle.

All goes moderately well, with Abel starting a slow glide into complete disapproval by the Lieutenant as he continues to protest, albeit in minor ways, at his enforced presence in the castle. When a rival armed group shells the castle with an artillery piece Abel decides to reveal some of the resources he had hoped to hide from the Lieutenant in a bid to provide them with means to rid the country of this new group. (And thus safeguard the castle.) Unsurprisingly this makes the Lieutenant even more wary of Abel as she realises the level of deception he is capable of.

Conversely the relationship between Morgan and the Lieutenant has grown stronger with Morgan sharing details about Abel with the Lieutenant. The raid on the group with the gun works well and soon the gun is captured and the group killed. Towing the gun back the Lieutenant orders a celebration ofmtheir victory in the castle's great hall. Forced into playing for the troops Abel continues his small resistance to his situation, suceeding in enraging the troops and he ends up being placed down at the bottom of the castle well for the night.

Climbing out he moves quietly through the castle looking for Morgan. Startled to find her in the Lieutenant's room Abel trips as leaving, accidentally firing a round from a gun he had accquired while moving through the castle. This causes the Lieutenant and her group to think that Abel was trying to kill the Lieutenant, doing little to earn him their favour. In actuality Abel had shot Morgan and so he is hurriedly carted away from the castle as the angry Lieutenant means to kill him.

While searching for a suitable place to kill Abel the Lieutenant's group is ambused and Abel, left for dead in the remains of the jeep, survives. Investigating the nearby mill he finds that the Lieutenant is hurt but alive while the rest of her travelling party is dead and the ambusers have been killed as well. Dithering for a while he decides to kill the Lieutenant and places her head on the mill stones and leaves, shortly thereafter the Lieutenant is decapitated.

A rescue party from the castle discovers what Abel has done and when he returns to the castle, to retreive Morgan, they seal the castle with Abel outside and proceed to play a macabre game taunting Abel with Morgan, eventually killing her. Taking Abel captive they then strap him to the front of the artillery piece they captured, planning to fire it next morning - killing Abel.

Comments: It's a complex tale, made more so by the degree of flashback and that most of the other characters motives are examined purely from Abel's perspective. The problem with this is that Abel is such a cold fish that it is hard to have much sympathy for the man. This lessens the impact of what could have been quite powerful passages like the party that essentially ransacks Abel's home. Something that would have a great deal more impact if we actually cared for Abel.

But Abel is such a self centred and absorbed person that this clouds everything else in the tale. Perhaps the best realised character is that of the Lieutenant who comes across as a person pressed into service under extraordinary circumstances and who rose to the challenge. Albeit with a few flaws. All in all though, much as I would like to like this book, I can't really recommend it particularly. It lacks the vitality and, frequnetly grim, humour of his other works.

Philip R. Banks
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