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The Stone Boatmen by Sarah Tolmie

The Stone Boatmen.jpgI picked up this fantasy novel at the last Seattle Potlatch on voidampersand's recommendation, and I didn't know much about it or the author before I started reading it. Within a few pages I looked the author up to confirm my suspicion that she was a poet. She writes prose like a poet: spare, careful, precise, and a little precious. The imagery is strong, and everything feels highly symbolic and subtly ornate.

The thing that makes this novel stand out is the highly original nature of the world it's set in. It's not remotely like generic Fantasyland, and it's not really like any other fantasy world I've read about, although there are aspects of it that reminded me of Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria. Part of this similarity might by stylistic too, since Samatar is also a poet writing a fantasy novel, but part of it is just how different the imaginary worlds are from anything else I've encountered. I've seen The Stone Boatmen compared to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels too, but I have to say that I didn't see it myself. But what I was going to say on this point was that it also strikes me as poetic, in the sense that poems are often about themselves and their own uniqueness. It's almost avant garde in the way it tries to avoid being generic, and yet it also avoids the incoherence that avant garde works can suffer from their lack of connection to anything familiar, at least for an audience unattuned to their individualistic meaning.

Anyway, it's a little difficult to summarize what The Stone Boatmen is about. It's about three cities that are all across oceans from each other and long out of contact although all were founded by the same civilization. One city specializes in rituals, one in poetry, and one in visions, and the deep matter of the story is how each of these things is a type of pattern-finding or meaning-communication. It's a multigenerational novel, with almost every chapter being about a new character who is a descendant of the characters in the previous chapters. It goes at least five generations deep, maybe six. If the story does have a similarity to standard fantasies it's in the way that it's mostly about the aristocracy. In the beginning a ruling family marries into a lower class fishing family, but after that all the characters are from the upper class, with basically unlimited resources to pursue their talents.

All the characters have talents, mostly falling into the three foci of the three cities. Another way that The Stone Boatmen makes me think of Samatar's novel is that both take religion seriously. In The Stone Boatmen this comes in the form of both ritual and vision. Perhaps the poetry functions as a kind of sacrament too. There is no overt religion with a church and gods, however, unlike in Samatar. (There are priests, but no theology to speak of.) Tolmie seems to be trying to tie everything together in the final chapter, but I confess that I'm not sure I understood her argument. It may have been an attempt to rationalize the visions of the future and the deep past that some of the characters experience in terms of pattern-finding. There are a number of twins in the story, and the final seer, Fjorel, observes that they are both identical and yet unique, and that this is true of classes of things in general. She has a revelation about this that may amount to realizing that the similarity of things is true through time, and this allows us to see into the past and the future. However, as I say, I'm not at all sure I understood the revelation.

This is also a non-genre story in the way that nothing much happens. There are adventures of a type, but not much in the way of swashbuckling. Characters and their relationships change, sometimes surprisingly, but it's not really a story of character either. Ultimately it's a story of discovery and ideas, and while I found it a little slow-going at times, I really appreciated the attention to detail and the strangeness of the whole endeavor. The uniqueness of the world is reason enough for the visit.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 28th, 2016 04:36 am (UTC)
This is next on my reading list after "Alif the Unseen."

Sounds interesting!
May. 28th, 2016 04:53 am (UTC)
Well, it's definitely different, whether it's interesting or not.
May. 28th, 2016 08:06 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure that I'm still up for a reading experience as intense as the first encounter with Titus Groan put me through (I was 18 and not yet either wearied or cynical, but then I had little cause to be), but that part of me that's still 18 is definitely curious.
May. 28th, 2016 08:54 pm (UTC)
Maureen Kincaid Speller's review is worth reading, and I see that she's the one who compared the book to Gormenghast, although it's really more a contrasting than a comparison.
May. 28th, 2016 08:59 pm (UTC)
Only in the details of the themes. The scale, the complexity, the literary quality: these are the elements that brought the comparison to mind in the first place, and they are that which, if indeed present and maintained, would lead to a similarly awesome reading experience.

I favor comparisons on deep matters. I've spent too much time reading worthless crap advertised as just like Tolkien but which resembled his work only in meaningless surface features.
May. 29th, 2016 07:33 pm (UTC)
I think the comparison was because like Gormenghast, it is unique and full of striking images and ideas. But The Stone Boatmen and Gormenghast are completely different from each other, too. The Stone Boatmen is about the birth (or maybe rebirth) of a civilization that I would be happy to live in. It is a fantasy where the characters decide to choose rationality.
May. 30th, 2016 02:54 am (UTC)
Today I picked up Tolmie's new "novel," Trio, which is actually a sonnet sequence that tells the story of a woman who loves two different men. 120 sonnets in all. I read the first two, and they had a sense of humor that I didn't notice in The Stone Boatmen.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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