Eboni Dunbar’s 2020 Stone and Steel is a secondary universe fantasy novella.
After a two-year campaign, a victorious General Aaliyah returns to the city of Titus, the city-state on whose behalf she has been fighting. She expects to find a city reborn. She does not.
Just as it was in her childhood, Titus’ streets are filled with the desperately poor. While the rich and well-connected prosper, the masses live on the edge of starvation. This is the traditional state for Titus, yes … but when Aaliyah set out to crush Titus’ external enemies, it was with the promise that Titus would be reformed in her absence.
Indeed, the entire reason Aaliyah and her allies overthrew Titus’ previous king was to replace an unjust system with one benefiting all of the city’s people. Equitably distributed, Titus’ resources are enough for all. It’s clear that said resources are not equitably distributed.
Titus being an absolute monarchy, responsibility falls on a single pair of shoulders: Queen Odessa, the stone mage who is Aaliyah’s foster-sister, and (very very secret) lover. Odessa was supposed to have used her control over the city to improve things. Instead, a cursory glance at the city’s accounts reveals that she has spent two years improving her own life. Indeed, a cynic might say “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Filled with righteous outrage, Aaliyah confronts the queen, whereupon she discovers there is one significant difference between Odessa and her predecessor. Odessa took a lesson from the king’s overthrow: crush dissent rather than letting it fester. In very short order, Aaliyah is lodged in a prison cell.
It’s clear to Aaliyah that no matter how fond she is of Odessa personally, the queen must go. Orchestrating the revolution from inside a jail cell may prove challenging….
Readers may be forgiven for cynicism about Titus’ future, inasmuch as the lofty goals held by some citizens are lacking both
- a theoretical structure that could guide them toward a more equitable state and
- any sort of official apparatus that might keep the absolute ruler of the week from reimposing tyranny.
If Aaliyah were to succeed in overthrowing the queen, she is the logical choice to replace Odessa. Too bad that military success does not necessarily mean equivalent talent in civilian politics. What’s chronicled in this book may simply be Titus’ equivalent of the Year of the Four Emperors, the Year of the Five Emperors, and the Year of the Six Emperors. Or for that matter, the transition from Lord Winder to Lord Snapcase.
To be fair, while a succession of autocrats is (as the story demonstrates) an unsatisfactory solution to governance , it does provide ample opportunities for juicy narrative, as each new ruler provides conspirators with reasons to overthrow them.
I didn’t love this book. In part it was the prose, which I found competent at best. I suspect the greater part of my dissatisfaction was the curtailed length. This is a novella with a sweeping plot; the plot has to go full steam ahead. There isn’t room to detail Aaliyah’s gradual realization that she has installed a spoiled monster as queen. Instead, it’s immediately obvious she’s made a terrible mistake. Similarly, there is no room for a subtle, complex story about the consequences of her earlier decision, nor room for much expansion on the escape from the prison cell and the orchestration of the next revolution. The result is a very straightforward, extremely linear narrative that moves too fast for my taste.
I did not find it at Chapters-Indigo. This is not the first time I have been unable to find a book by a POC at Chapters.
1: Even from an autocrat’s perspective, inasmuch as the job appears to assure a very limited life expectancy.