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.