Angus Macallan turns in a solid if somewhat overly familiar fantasy story in Gates of Stone (2019), the first in a series entitled LORD OF THE ISLANDS. What saves the book from sinking in that familiarity, though, are some interesting characters and a less-familiar setting/mythos.
The novel follows four characters in mostly separated story lines, though they do cross paths now and then before the stories converge. In one, sixteen-year-old Princess Katerina, robbed of what she thinks was her rightful place as heir to the Empire of the Ice-Bear (think ancient Russia) and married off to a Southron prince, kills her new husband (not really a spoiler, as it’s both telegraphed and over with in the first few pages) and sets in motion plans to achieve her own power, plans that center on the islands of Laut Besar (think ancient Indonesia) and its status as sole producer of obat — a highly desired drug.
The second plot sees another royal heir — Prince Arjun of Taman, who also is rudely booted from his thought-to-be-laid-out life when an evil sorcerer invades his island, kills his father, the king, and makes off with the magic sword that has been handed down in Jun’s family for generations. Thanks to the prodding of Semar, an aged servant (whom Jun eventually figures out is more than that), the prince and his servant, joined by a young girl named Ketut (also more than the poor fisher-girl she seems) follow the sorcerer, seeking vengeance and the magic weapon.
A third story involves Farhan Madani, a reluctant agent of the Indujah Federation, who seeks to undermine the Federation’s rivals for power, particularly the Celestial Empire of the Han. Finally, we also follow the evil sorcerer Mangku on his quest for the seven fabled Keys that were used to lock away demons and other sundry evils into the Seven Hells.
None of these characters are particularly likable at the start. Katerina is coldly, pathologically brutal; Jun is a pampered, whiny, and passive prince; Farhan is amoral and singularly focused on money; and Mangku the evil sorcerer is, well, an evil sorcerer. But I’ve always said characters can be unlikable; they just can’t be uninteresting. And for the most part, these pass that test.
As much of a power-hungry sociopath Katerina is — willing to pile up and climb up any number of bodies to reach her goal — she’s compelling in her single-minded nature, her deadly intelligence, and her ruthless efficiency. She’s that writhing mass of larvae you just uncovered when you turned over a log and now can’t look away from no matter how disturbing it is. She does have some flaws in her characterization (beyond the flaws in her character). I’m not sure I always bought her age, and while she has some setbacks, she, at times, seems a bit implausibly good and at other times implausibly careless. There’s a way those two could have meshed more smoothly, but the execution felt just a little off here.
Farhan I found the most engaging, mostly because he’s both so easy to get in terms of his motivation (money, a nice retirement, fear of gambling collectors) and because he’s only a grudging actor in the grander schemes, leading to a lot of wry, resigned humor. He’s a guy often in over his head and thus easy to relate to and even sympathize with at times. And he’s revealed over time to have more strengths than are readily apparent at first. Though similar to Katerina, his characterization is sometimes a little inconsistent.
The same is true of Jun, though he’s I think the least interesting of the three. For one, as noted, he’s pretty passive throughout most of Gates of Stone, and that just is tough to carry off for hundreds of pages and keep the reader invested. Two, it’s a character we’ve seen a million times before — the spoiled, no-nothing prince who finds a core of toughness inside himself as well as learns a bit more about the “little people” he never paid much attention to. As for Mangku, for nearly all the novel he’s just “Evil Sorcerer” guy, about as stock as one can get. But eventually he’s granted some depth that goes a good way toward complicating both his character and the plot, though I won’t say anything more about that.
As for the plot, at its base it is, as noted, pretty by the book. Bad guy wants to collect magic artifacts to destroy the world. Good folks want to stop him and so race to collect the talismans themselves or prevent him from doing so. Start at go. Collect talisman one. Repeat. Meanwhile, a Great Game of politics and empires is being played. The details are fine enough, and Macallan does a good job of pacing the action scenes as well as varying their type: naval battles, sieges, raids, deception and betrayal, but there’s nothing startlingly original here. Though, I will say, it was nice to see the characters cross paths earlier than usual, as opposed to the typical three strands and nary shall one meet until the penultimate chapter mode.
My favorite part of Gates of Stone is the world-building. The mix of Russian, Indonesian, Indian, and Chinese influence creates a rich stew of culture that I appreciated even if some were presented only briefly, and I look forward to seeing them more fully mined as the LORD OF THE ISLANDS series progresses. In that vein, a nice touch is that a number of sections open up with an excerpt from “Ethnographic Travels,” a scholarly work that dives a few paragraphs at a time into the various cultures. The magic and mythos inspired by less familiar cultures felt fresher than the usual same old same old we tend to see. One example is the idea of “vessels,” whereby certain people can become possessed temporarily by one of the gods, for both good and ill.
A few small complaints I had were that sometimes the exposition can be handled a bit clumsily, and there were two rape scenes I could have done without, one merely referenced and the other a bit more detailed. The latter isn’t excessively vivid, and to the author’s credit, while the victim is female both times, other clear reference is made to male rape as a definite threat, but I’m just generally not a fan showing rape, though I get the idea of not just pretending it wouldn’t happen in these particular situations.
The ending of Gates of Stone is a bit abrupt and maybe a little contrived, but overall, Macallan’s smooth pacing, good mix of action scenes, clear if not arresting prose, and intriguing worldbuilding left me interested in continuing on with the story in the sequel.