PROS: A successful changeup to a quest and travelogue based plot from book One; continues strong worldbuilding of the Lands Vin and beyond.
CONS: A few mid-series book flaws detract from the reading.
VERDICT: A deepening of the characters and the world of the Lands Vin.
Weight of Stone is the second novel of Laura Anne Gilman’s Vineart War series. Set in a secondary fantasy world, the lands Vin are a place where magic comes from wine, but a long ago incident with the gods has severed the link between politics and power, turning the Vine-mages into more sedentary, sedate and sessile Vinearts.
Now, though, a murky and mysterious threat to the lands Vin has caught up Jerzy, a former slave being trained as Vineart by his former master, as well as his companions. And yet, their investigations have already marked Jerzy as an apostate. Under such clouds and threats, Jerzy, Ao, Mahault and Kainam search for the source of the dagger pointed at the throat of the lands they love.
Being a second novel in the series, I am hesitant to talk a lot about the plot in extreme detail for fear of, pace River Song, spoilers. I can and will say that while Flesh and Fire focused primarily on the world of two vineyards, Weight of Stone is far more of a travelogue. Jerzy and his companions range across a number of locations in the Lands Vin–and beyond, in their quest to discover the mysterious machinations that seem designed to plunge the Lands Vin into chaos. And for the most part the transition works. Putting Jerzy on a ship for a fair amount of time does, if you will pardon the pun, make this a fish-out-of-water story. And the contrast between the setting of this novel and the previous one is a nice contrast that shows the breadth of the writer’s ability.
The author’s mastery of language still holds here. This is now the fourth book by the author that I have read this year, and I’ve really got a handle, I think, on her take on the craft. How she shows off character, and thematically, too. For example:
“I’m sorry,” Mahl said, seeing the way his gaze flittered over their acquisitions. “The village was so small–there were no spellwines to be had, not at any price.”
Jerzy hadn’t really expected that there would be; while those at Mahault’s social level might consider them daily essentials, the price kept even the most basic healwines out of the reach of most farmers and guildsmen, and the more powerful or well known a Vineart, the more coin a spellwine with his sigil could earn. A land-lord or guild master might distribute spellwines among his people, at need, but a small island village without direct patron or generous lord? They would likely never see magic used in their lifetime.
“No matter,” he said to Mahl, feeling the lack in his gut and on his tongue, the accomplishments of the morning floating away like dust.
A Vineart without a vineyard. A Vineart without spellwines. A Vineart without enough experience to have a deep quiet-magic, and what he had done that morning likely used up the little he had left. No Vineart at all, without even his belt and his knife to identify him. He was useless except as physical labor, nothing more than the slave he had once been, the absence of soil under his feet and fingers like a physical ache once again.
About the characters: I was a little disappointed that one soft bit about Kainam’s special link does not get explored beyond one moment. And, really, this is Jerzy’s story through and through. He is the passport officer that stamps our entry into the Lands Vin, and really, our conceptions of Ao, Kainam and Mahault come from him. It is fortunate, but no surprise, that he continues to develop as a character in terms of his personality and his magic. I do note that the rather asexual nature of Vinearts has meant that romantic subplots and leanings are firmly absent in the novel. I think that such a subplot would have been an easy way out for the author to take, or at least a simmering of sexual tension, but the author has firmly followed the consequences and constraints she has put on her world, and there is none.
The Setting of the Lands Vin continues to be developed, both within and without, as the travelogue nature of much of the plot allows. There is a portion where Jerzy returns to House Malech, and the more traditional confines of the first novel’s grounded nature, but even that is a pausing, resting point, before Jerzy is off again. So in a very real sense, the setting of this novel is always in motion, as opposed to the more stationary with gaps setting of the first novel.
So what didn’t work for me? Well, a mid-series book, especially the middle book of a trilogy always has pitfalls that are inescapable. Unfortunately Weight of Stone does fall into a few of them, mostly regarding the denouement of the novel and the ultimate “point” of the travelogue. But to be fair, it might be easier to judge that once I read the third and final novel and have the entirety of the series to judge. Like in chess, the middle game of a fantasy novel trilogy can often be difficult to really understand without understanding the opening and seeing the endgame that results and plays out.
One thing that did annoy me though, was a bit of herky-jerkiness revolving around the departure of Jerzy from Malech. I hesitate to give away spoilers, but an arcane ability is revealed that is absolutely unprecedented, and really seems only to be present and used for the sake of plot convenience rather than a more holistic and natural part of matters.
As usual with book series — and the Vineart War is no exception — starting here is an absolute mistake. My thought that the three books are really, Tolkien style, a single narrative cut into three pieces is confirmed here. You can’t and shouldn’t start here, and I can see no good reason why to do so. Start with Flesh and Fire and come to this one in the fullness of time, like the aging of a fine wine.