The Garden of Stones is the first part of Mark T. Barnes’ Echoes of Empire series that will be concluding later this month. This is an epic, high fantasy series filled with magic, fantastical races, war, cutthroat politics, romance, and vast, intricate world building. This book places me in an interesting position. Despite being an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction for almost my entire life, despite reading the Lord of the Rings multiple times before I was even in high school and devouring the Silmarillion as a comfort book, epic fantasy is not my preferred subgenre. With a few isolated exceptions, I have largely avoided high fantasy, and its science fiction counterpart, the space opera. This is odd because I do enjoy cutthroat politics, chess matches played out across nations, and I appreciate intricate world building, two elements that form a major backbone of this sort of novel. This is a longwinded way of saying that The Garden of Stones is not the sort of fantasy novel I usually choose to read.
As expected, the world building is the absolute highlight of the novel. Mark T. Barnes has constructed a vast world of fantastical races, ancient history, shifting alliances, magic, and highly advance technology. It is a living, breathing place filled with details and little touches that make it feel real and lived in. Even with over 500 pages, the reader is left feeling as if they have barely scratched the surface of this world. The preponderance of details, however, also drags down the narrative. Barnes has a refreshing confidence in the reader’s ability to catch up and figure things out for themselves. Information comes thick and fast, often with little to no explanation. Backstory is parceled out slowly. Even with the character list and glossary provided at the end, keeping the various factions, races, even terms straight was a constant challenge.
The characters, likewise, took some time to come alive on the page, and the plot is occasionally meandering. The central conflict between the reluctant warrior-poet Indris and the dying but still ambitious Corajidin builds slowly, and unfortunately, the central romance between Indris and Corajidin’s daughter never quite convinced me. It is important to remember, however, that this is only the first part of a trilogy, and that despite its density and length The Garden of Stones is only a beginning.
**Received copy from NetGalley for review