The Arm of the Stone by Victoria Strauss
The world has been torn asunder. Originally held together by disciplines of mind and hand, devotees of the powers of the mind have been pushed aside by the technological innovations of the devotees of hand power. As belief in the power of magic fades, the last enclaves of magic users simply disappear. But they are not actually gone. They have formed a second world, accessible only by a few Gates that bind the two worlds together. This new world is held together by the power of the Stone, a magical artifact that bestows all knowledge upon its possessor. Bron has been raised knowing that his was the last family in the 1000-year history of the world to hold the Stone before it was seized by the evil Percival, who used the Stone to set up a system of oppressive rule enforced by the Guardians. He has been raised on the Tale, a story of his noble lineage that must be kept secret at all costs. It foretells the coming of the One, who will reclaim the Stone and end the rule of the Guardians. And his mother believes that he is the One.
Originally published in 1998, The Arm of the Stone by Victoria Strauss was re-released in 2011. I was not familiar with her work before but was greatly impressed by this book. Strauss takes a standard heroic quest fantasy but embeds it in a deeply detailed world that is fascinating in its complexity. Strauss manages to write a book that can be read at two levels simultaneously. First, you have an excellent fantasy quest novel, in which Bron follows his destiny to destroy the Guardians. In doing this, he will join the Guardians to gain the power he needs to destroy it. Bron’s story is mirrored by the adventures of Liliane and Goldwine, two young women who have spent their lives focused on joining the Guardians. Liliane and Bron meet briefly in the Fortress, the center of the Guardians’ power. As the story skips swathes of time, Liliane and Bron will face the changes of their goals and understanding together and yet completely opposed to each other.
Secondly, this book is a great discussion on the nature of power and its corruptive forces. This world is one in which religious and political authority is joined into one organization. Much like the Catholic Church in the middle ages, this causes multiple competing forces within the organization to compete for supremacy. Strauss’s depiction of the inner machinations of the forces within the Guardians has real effects on the characters, and shapes their goals and their motivations. Bron and Liliane represent two competing orthodoxies, and watching them both deal with the challenges in their lives gives the reader an opportunity to examine the role of belief and devotion in society.
This is a wonderfully realized fantasy novel. While I understand that Liliane exists mostly to serve as a foil and mirror for Bron, I would have liked to see her story more fully developed. Though Strauss skips large periods of time in both stories, this is particularly evident in the case of Liliane, though you could make the argument that her character develops less because of its faithfulness to the same cause throughout her story. Still, I felt that we were told her development more than watching it happen. I would have gladly read 100 more pages to see her story more fully developed. I can see how doing this for Bron would have ruined some of the surprise elements of the plot and destroyed the building tension, but I do not think the same caveat applies to Liliane’s story.
I highly recommend this book as an example of epic quest fantasy that goes beyond sword slinging and mind magic. Strauss masterfully accomplishes a detailed, thought-provoking work of epic fantasy that has something to offer for everyone. I will be seeking out the second book in this duology to finish the story of Bron, Liliane and Goldwine to see what will happen next in this expertly crafted world.
Long ago, after a battle for dominance between the power of mind (what we’d call magic) and the power of the hand (technology and tools), those with mindpower left for another world using the Stone, a magical talisman of great power. But after generations of peace, Percival stole the stone, killed the family that had wielded its power, and set up a new system of rule, with power strictly held by the Guardians, who enforced the rules against handpower of any sort.
The Arm of the Stone, by Victoria Strauss, opens with young Bron listening, as he has every night, to this tale, which has special meaning to his family, as they are the sole surviving descendants of that family Percival tried to extinguish. They tell the tale to remind each generation of the prophecy that one day “The One” will come, greater than any in mindpower, and reclaim the sword and overthrow the Guardians. It takes the reader all of about a second or two to predict that Bron will be that One, and soon after his older brother is imprisoned for improving the sole approved plow, Bron’s family comes to realize it (or at least hope for it) too. Eventually, Bron works his way into training to become one of the hated Guardians, hoping he’ll be able to destroy the organization from within, though after spending time within it, he learns things aren’t quite as black and white as he’d thought. Meanwhile, two young women, Liliane and Goldwine, are also training in the Fortress and we move back and forth between their tales and Bron’s, with the three of them eventually intersecting (Liliane and Bron have the lion’s share of attention, with Goldwine playing a much smaller, but pivotal, part).
I had to really struggle past the early parts of The Arm of the Stone, thanks to a good number of flaws, such as some overly familiar plot points and characters. Bron’s background was one stumbling block: the whole prophecy — young boy who is the One — secret descendant of past rulers — magic stone thing. The oppressive military style group — magic is ours — big fortress center was another. Early plot points were easily predictable; there was never any question in my mind that Bron was the One, that his brother would get arrested, that Bron would learn his power trying to help his brother, and so forth. Strauss served up a lot of early, clunky exposition, either via direct narration or thinly disguised as “tales” or “catechisms.” There were some just silly statements from characters, some logic gaps, and some too-convenient plot manipulations, as when the Guardians just randomly decide not to interrogate the youngest (and thus easiest to break) in Bron’s family after his brother’s arrest or when Bron’s power comes and goes based on the needs of the plot rather than any clear reason. Things didn’t get a lot better when we shift point-of-view to Liliane’s story. For instance, a big deal is made of how rare and important to society the Gift (of mindpower) is, and how even more rare and important her particular one, heartsensing, is. And yet for some reason, the Guardians force all those who pass testing to take this near-suicidal journey through inclement weather and territory to find the Fortress, a journey which kills many of these supposedly so-important resources.
Later, as Bron goes through his training, he is shocked, shocked that his defiant attitude would have any impact on what happened to him: “all the punishments, all the Obediences — why had it never occurred to him that they would influence the outcome of the Examinations?” Yes, why indeed?
I almost put the book down a few times during the first third or so. It does pick up, despite some continued issues, once Bron begins to move up in the ranks of his training and then when both he and Liliane take up positions of some importance, which eventually leads to them working in some opposition to each other. But then a pretty trite romance flares up (both predictably and conveniently) and that aspect didn’t do anything to enhance the story for me.
I enjoyed the moments of complexity when Bron realizes there are subtler aspects to the Guardians, and I liked especially his superior in the Fortress, one who is trying to change the organization himself. The basic premise — this split between the hand and the mind — was interesting but fell a bit short for me in execution. But while the flaws may not have overwhelmed the novel’s good points, so that my general reaction was more positive than negative, the balance was closer than I liked and so I can’t quite recommend it. There is a sequel, but The Arm of the Stone didn’t do enough to interest me in continuing the story.
I read this book years ago and loved it!!
Sounds interesting, but not sure I can bring myself to read a book with a villain called Percival!
Does she write the Writers Beware blog? And I think I’ve seen a how-to book of hers. This doesn’t sound like a fun read though, too predictable from the start. I’ll pass. Thanks, Bill.
Yes, that’s her, Marion.