Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Bookwyrm's Review of The Garden of Stones by Mark T. Barnes

Author: Mark T. Barnes

Length: 506 Pages/ 16 hours, 47 minutes (Audio)

Publisher: 47 North/Brilliance Audio

Release Date: May 21, 2013

Series: Echoes of Empire (Book 1)

Narrator: Nick Podehl

This is a review that has been long in coming, since, to be perfectly honest, this is literally my favorite fantasy series of all time. I have read a few series that come close to this in my mind, such as ML Spencer's Rhenwars series, CT Phipps Wraith Knight series and David Oliver's Great Hearts series, but for my money, this is as good as epic fantasy gets.

In the Shrianese Federation, successor to the Awoken Empire, the Game of Houses is alive and well. When his father-in-law is falsely accused of raiding an off limits outland he is supposed to guard, Indris, called Dragoneye, a master swordsman and a powerful Scholar-Mage, steps up to defend him and his lands from the army of the other families raised against him. He helps hold off the army long enough to let his father-in-law escape, although Indris and his companions are captured by the armies of the mastermind behind the attack, Corajadin. Barely avoiding execution, Indris is determined to stop Corajadin from taking over his father-in-law's lands, which would give him access to the ancient secrets hidden in the outlands, known as the Romarc. He is also determined to protect the current leader of the Federation from the machinations of Corajadin, who can potentially become leader, and has ambitions to remake the Awoken Empire with himself as the Emperor.

Surviving an ambush that takes the leadership of the Federation out of play, Indris, with the help of his companions, his powerful mentor, and even a member of Corajadin's family, has to try and stop a seismic shift in power in the Federation. In addition, there are other players in the game with goals of their own, including an Engothic Witch who is aiding Corajadin and who may extract a price the Federation can't afford, as well as a person from Indris's past who he thought long dead, who is lurking in the background. All the while, Indris must fight political battles with his own side, who don't want to face the real dangers they are facing. It all leads to a climactic showdown, as Indris and company try and stop the ancient secrets from being released, and keeping Corajadin from destroying the Federation in the quest for Empire.

There is so much to love about this book, and series as a whole. The world building is fantastic, with a wide range of locations throughout, all lovingly described in such a way that you feel you are there personally, all without feeling like filler. The plot is intricate and fast paced, never leaving you feeling it drags along, but moving you from one scene to the next seamlessly. The real strength of this book, though, is the characters. From the main characters to the faceless masses, the author manages to inject life and personality into them all. Indris is my personal favorite. A powerful mage, he struggles against the destiny others planned for him, and charts his own course, regardless of the personal cost.  Intensely loyal, he will do anything, risk anything, for those he loves. Mari, Corajadin's daughter, and the black sheep of the family, is also a favorite. a fantastic warrior, she is conflicted over loyalty to her family's machinations and her oaths to the Federation. She also struggles against the destiny planned for her, refusing to be a family brood mare. All the other various characters are well drawn out, never feeling two dimensional. they have realistic motives and ambitions, even the villains. In fact, the villains in this series are some of the best you will find in fantasy. They are that well written. 

Nick Podehl handles the narrative work, and is he fantastic! He brings all the various characters to life, imbuing each with their own voice and personality through a variety of accents, tones and pace. His narrative pacing is some of the best in the business, and there is a reason he gets so much work. Just another reason to check this series out.

Is the series perfect? No, but in my mind, its not far from it. The author does go the route of complicated and unusual character, nation and location names, which is not for every reader. I don't mind it, but when I recommend it to my friends that do mind that, I recommend they try the audio version. It really does solve the issue for a lot of people. That's about all I can see that fantasy fans might take issue with. The backstory is as deep as it gets, and the politics, actions and magic are top rate. I wholeheartedly recommend this series for fans of epic fantasy, be it Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time or even lesser known titles. This series matches up well with any of them. It is also a completed trilogy, so don't go in thinking you have to wait ten years for the next book. I do hope to see more of Indris's adventures one day though.

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