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Quietly addictive: The Stone Boatmen

The Stone Boatmen

By Sarah Tolmie 

15 Sep, 2014

KW Science Fiction and Fantasy


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It is a sad truth that a life spent reviewing books, particularly genre fiction, particularly fantasy, involves reading a lot of terrible books. Worse, reading variations of the same terrible book, over and over. There is a benefit, which is that a gem of the first water like Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatmen stands out against the rest that much more. 

I first heard about this book from another reviewer and entirely non-stalkery Googling of the author turned up some intriguing details. The book has a glowing blurb from Ursula Le Guin, for one, and the author teaches at my alma mater, the University of Waterloo. 

The voyages of the ship Aphelion reconnect three cities with a shared but forgotten common origin. Time and isolation have allowed the three cultures to grow in quite different directions but great enigmatic statues from the lost age when the cities were founded makes it clear that there was a time when all three were in regular contact. 

What follows is a less a novel and more a series of interwoven stories, focused on the relationships made possible by the new age of connection. People find mentors, friends and lovers. Some individual stories don’t end happily but the stories as a whole don’t end, each one having some surviving thread that continues into the ones that follow. 

There are two aspects to this book that make it a welcome change of pace. The first is the quality of the prose, which is of a much higher level than one generally gets to enjoy in fantasies. The other is the intimate focus, which eschews the easy drama of war or grandiose melodrama. It’s an oddly quiet book and while the setting is in no way apocalyptic, leaving aside the issue of whatever it was that led to the age of isolation, what this reminded me of was Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. The work finds its way across decades and while there is no obvious urgency to any of this, it is all very addictive. It’s a shorter book than I wanted it to be; I would have happily kept reading for hundreds more pages.

It was discovering this book, as well as another one I will be reviewing later on this week, that made me sit back and think about how many F&SF authors come from the Waterloo Region, which in turn led to the event going on this Saturday (See my 9/15 blog post for more details). 

The Stone Boatmen is available in a variety of formats from Aqueduct Press.