Profeet van de Duivel. It was later reissued after an additional round of editing by one of the major publishers of fantasy in the Netherlands. Two more novels in the same series appeared to round off the trilogy. It was followed by a duology set in the same world. Now, Stone is ready for a new challenge De Klauw (literally: The Talon) is the first book in the Magyker trilogy. It is set in a new world, with a new system of magic and new characters. Readers who liked his previous novels will probably think he hit the bullseye with this novel. It offers the same fast paced, straightforward epic fantasy found in his previous novels. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I found it to be a frustrating read.
Marit and her brother Auric are living in the city of Oftenooi. Their past is a mystery to them. After they left the Magyker city of Aimerey their memory was wiped. Now the Magykers are visiting their city to perform one of their spells. During the operation an unexpected talent surfaces in Auric. He can memorize and reproduce a spell after hearing it performed just once. To the Magykers, who have always guarded their monopoly on magic jealously, he is a threat to their wealth and power. He can't be allowed to live. Soon Marit and Auric are on the run. They find themselves in the (unwanted) company of the mysterious Eamon, who has his own reasons to dislike the Magykers. Reasons he is reluctant to share.
Stone certainly knows his audience. He aims for the kind of fantasy that has been doing very well here for the past decade. It is a tried and successful recipe. Magic, dragons, reluctant heroes and a world on the verge of a cataclysmic change. Stories told in accessible prose, that keep the reader's attention form the very first page. Stone's story has all that. I suspect the manuscript made an editor somewhere very happy. He has grown as a writer as well, the pacing in particular is has improved compared to his first novel, and his worldbuilding is more confident as well.
Of course, the novel should be a bit different too from what has come before. The spiritual themes of the previous books have disappeared into the background. Where the intersection of religious fanaticism and power is studied in detail in those books, attention shifts to economics in De Klauw. The power their monopoly provides the Magykers with is felt throughout the world and is one of the driving forces of the conflict Stone describes in the novel. This theme is woven through the entire novel, if perhaps not as prominently as it might have been.
Stone picks an unusual saviour too. Auric is not only magically talented, he is also autistic. It makes him a handful for the people around him. He is highly unpredictable, lacks social grace and has the tendency to be brutally honest at exactly the wrong moment. I'm not familiar enough with the autism spectrum to say where in this range Auric could be placed but his behaviour is certainly recognizable. Stone uses it cleverly to keep the readers on their toes. Many tense situations arise from the question of how Auric will respond to a certain situation. Although he usually doesn't do it consciously, his actions determine the shape of events to a large extent.
So interesting world, good pacing, unusual choice for a messianic character, why did I call this book frustrating? Partly because of the things it doesn't do. Yes, Stone has a good grasp of what the reader expects of epic fantasy and he ticks all the boxes. Along the way he passes up on quite a few opportunities to give his creations a bit more depth however. As an example I'll turn back to the economics Stone describes. It is touched upon but only very lightly. A few lines here and there to point at the problems the various nations face. Stone studied business economics and worked at ING, one of the largest Dutch banks, as an investment strategist for many years. To say he has an above average grasp of economics is probably an understatement. He could have done much more with it if he had wanted to.
Imagine one of the characters writing a fantasy equivalent of Das Kapital, as a response to magical monopoly deforming society. Or if you prefer more recent developments, a parallel with the Greek debt crisis in one of the kingdoms in financial trouble, or perhaps the recent Argentinian crises as a parallel for a private organisation to hold a government at ransom using financial (magical) means. A nod to Thomas Piketty when discussing the appalling inequality the characters see around them would have been possible, or Milton Friedman when discussing the lack of economic freedom. Some of these things can be read into the text but it is buried so very deep that it is clear these things were not where Stone focused his attention.
Another thing I found frustrating about the novel is Stone's tendency to lay out the motivation of characters, leaving virtually no room for interpretation. Show, do not tell is a bit overrated as writing advice in my opinion. Books that only show end up being impenetrable for a lot of readers. But that doesn't mean you have to tell everything. A fine example of how this can derail the story is the character of Valdana. She is one of the more ambiguous characters in the novel. Her motivations are unclear for a while. She seems to be not fully committed to the cause she has joined. Stone then proceeds to bluntly confirm the reader's doubt and then dumps an explanation for her every action on the reader in the final pages of chapter 21. No big reveal, confrontation or angry scene. Just a bit of internal monologue and there you have it.
To an extent something like that happens to Marit as well. One of the things she struggles with in the novel is the lack of knowledge about her past. she yearns to know more but on the other hand fears what she might find. It's a dilemma she faces at the end of the book. Memories are intensely personal and messing with them has a profound impact on the character. Interestingly enough the climax of this part of the story is mostly described from the point of view of other characters. What could have been an emotionally powerful scene ends up a muted affair. We don't get a peek into Marit's thoughts until after the dust has settled.
All things considered this new series is of to a rocky start. On the one hand Stone delivers a story set in a fresh, imaginative and interesting world. He populates it with interesting characters, definitely not the standard dungeons and dragons party. It has all the elements of a successful epic fantasy novel. On the other, he leaves so many of the opportunities he creates for himself unused and leaves the reader very little room for interpretation. De Klauw is very readable, uncomplicated fantasy. A very good read if that is what you are looking for. Personally, I would have liked for it to be a little more, and I think that was entirely achievable in this set up. It was not quite what I had hoped for but, as always, your mileage may vary.
Title: De Klauw
Author: Adrian Stone
First published: 2016