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.