What if your weapon had a conscience? A name, a soul?
Imagine, if you will, a scenario where an unprecedented weapon turns the tides of war. There are many instances over the course of our history where this is evident: a longbow, gunpowder, and the atomic bomb have all been instrumental in providing the decisive blow. But what if this weapon had a conscience? A name, a soul? Meet Task, a 400-year-old stone golem, hero protagonist of Ben Galley’s The Heart of Stone. He is such a weapon, and this is his story.
If we can look at humanity through the lens of an outsider, there’s potential to gain wisdom from such an uncommon perspective. In Task’s case, he has witnessed first-hand some of the worst of what humanity has offered: countless wars, starvation, destruction, genocide, displaced peasants fighting for a chance to eat and live, while nobility plays with their lives like they’re nothing more than pieces on a game board. Unfortunately for Task, this is a life in which he cannot escape. He was created centuries ago using long-dead “old magic,” and has suffered contractual slavery while passed amongst ruthless masters for decades. Task cannot break his contract or turn upon his master, so he’s used as a tool, a war machine, to achieve nefarious ends for power-hungry nobles and unqualified generals.
Task is not the only golem of this world, but he is one of the last. He’s also considered “broken,” as stated by his creator. Dozens of golems have been conjured (and long since destroyed), but only Task is able to question, discern, or philosophize. He second-guesses his orders, but is forced to follow through on them, and is therefore viewed as defective. Although he has an indestructible exterior, the opposite is true beneath his armor: his heart longs to be pure, his soul is good, but the guilt of his forced actions cause him nothing but torment and nightmares. He longs to be free and released of his enslavement, but the old magic won’t ever let him go.
The story begins with Task being purchased by a new master, an arrogant and petty general who wishes to become famous for ending a civil war that has deadlocked the land for nearly a decade. While Task is leads the army on a bloody rampage through the opposition, he comes into contact with an unlikely crew of companions: a brave, young, and powerful girl named Lesky, an alcoholic warrior of legend who has fallen from grace, and a mysterious, vengeance-seeking Baroness with potentially devious political machinations. It is through these new relationships that Task finds himself in a unique position to work towards achieving something he’s never encountered before.
Galley is clearly a gifted writer; his settings are descriptive and tangible, his characters shine with personality, and the plot dips and weaves through surprising twists and clever turns. Task is an interesting lead, as his battle rage is just a breath away from his devoted compassion and quiet sadness. The supporting cast focuses on just a few POVs, but there are some ancillary characters that have some scene-stealing moments as well. There were a couple of issues that I had some trouble with, however. There is one person who has a Master Plan, but there was no way to achieve it without another character’s help, and this character wasn’t available to help until the plan was nearing its conclusion. It made me wonder how that plan was supposed to succeed, since no one knew about the late-developing X-Factor when these plans were conceived. Another small gripe was that some of the villains of the story felt extremely one-sided. Their characterization seemed a bit flat, as I felt that they could always be counted on to make the wrong decision, every time. It started to feel a bit predictable and unrealistic. Perhaps some morally grey mixed in with their ubiquitously black hues would have fleshed out these characters a bit more, but overall it didn’t take away much from my enjoyment of the story.
The Heart of Stone is a clever rumination on the nature of war and guilt, freedom and responsibility, and fighting for something bigger than yourself. The war that rages through the battlefields of the empire draw a nice parallel with the war that rages within Task’s soul as he struggles to break free from his enslavement, protect the ones he loves, and gain the freedom to make his own choices. This story was written as a standalone, though there is ample history and open plot threads where new stories of Task and his companions can be told. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can recommend it to anyone who enjoys non-human protagonists, while gaining new perspectives on the nature of mankind at war with itself.
Note: I split time reading and listening to the audiobook version of this story, and commend Adam Stubbs on an excellent narration of the story. His stony, layered rumbling used for Task’s voice, as well as the nuanced accents he used for the various soldiers throughout the story were quite impressive. If you’re on the fence about listening to an audio version of this story, I fully recommend it.
Review by Adam Weller
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