Please note that this book review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, look away, now.
Charlie Fletcher’s middle-grade fantasy Stoneheart is a promising but ultimately frustrating read. There is a lot to like about this book, but it can be a challenge to read, and certain flaws detracted from my enjoyment at the end.
The story starts with a 12 year old boy named George, who’s had a really bad day. He’s one of those kids who are easily picked upon by casual bullies, and his teachers are, at best, complacent. On a trip to the Natural History Museum in London, George gets into trouble for something he didn’t do, and he rebels against his life by storming out of the museum, on his own, and then punching the head of a stone dragon.
But rather than break his hand, George ends up breaking the solid stone instead. And that’s not the weirdest thing that happens. In retaliation for this affront, a stone pterodactyl peels itself off of the wall of the Natural History Museum and stalks George through the busy streets of London, among Londoners who take no notice of a boy running for his life from a vicious statue. It’s only when George desperately takes refuge at the base of a war memorial that his life is saved, when the bronze Gunner steps off his pedestal and dispatches the pterodactyl with three shots of his bronze gun.
George’s troubles have only just started, however. The Gunner explains that George has fallen into an “unLondon”, a parallel version of London overlaid atop of the “real” London where the statues move, and are divided between the spits (statues that retain a definite human form — particularly soldiers on war memorials) and taints (statues of animals or creatures of the imagination, which are jealous of the spits for their resemblance to their human makers). George’s act of rebellion has upset the fragile truce between the taints and the spits and has riled the taints into a murderous rage. George has less than twenty-four hours to find the Stone Heart — possibly a stone at the heart of London — to make amends for what he has done, and return himself to his old world. Fortunately the spits, who have no love for the taints, will help him.
The Gunner and George are also helped by a girl named Edie who, unlike the normal residents of London, can see the statues move and, when seeing George walking with one of them, eagerly rushes forward, thinking that she’ll be alone no longer. But Edie is not like George. She is a ‘glint’, who has a special ability (or possibly a curse) of seeing images of the past (and forcibly broadcasting them to anybody in the area) just from touching particular objects. Despite early friction, George and Edie manage to work together and become friends — which is good, because the array of fearsome statues against them are terrifying to behold. Worse than the taints is a mysterious, cursed man known as the Walker — who wants to take the broken dragon’s head to the Stone Heart for his own benefit — and his mysterious raven companion, which may be a denizen of hell and is impossible to kill. And time is running out.
There is a lot to like about Charlie Fletcher’s Stone Heart. The London he establishes is lovingly crafted and richly detailed, and his depiction of George’s very bad day makes for great reading. The characterizations of all of the principles — particularly Edie — is compelling, and he imbues each and every spit with rich and fascinating personalities. The taints that they face are deeply scary, and the action scenes where the two children face the metal and stone monsters will keep you turning pages (“Grid Man” in particular is a highlight). You will believe that the statues of London will come down off their pedestals and talk to you. All in all, the book makes a good companion for a trip to London of your own, making me want to walk the streets George and Edie ran through, seeing the spits and taints for myself.
There are frustrating elements in Fletcher’s writing style, however. The point of view shifts between the main characters with little warning, and often within scenes, distracting the reader from the story. At points, it’s difficult to understand who is saying what line of dialogue until after the line of dialogue gets spoken. A stronger editorial hand, here, could have greatly improved things.
But it is George’s choice at the end of the novel that I had the greatest problem with, and here spoilers follow. At a superficial level, I can understand why Fletcher decided to have George refuse to put the broken dragon head on the heart stone, and essentially decide to reside permanently in unLondon. Not only does it set up a sequel (Iron Hand and Silvertongue complete the trilogy), but it does keep George and Edie’s friendship going, which is the best thing about the novel. However, I did not feel that enough preparation had been made for George to want to abandon his life in ‘real’ London. Yes, he experienced considerable personal growth in unLondon, and won a friendship from Edie, both of which he’d hate to lose by returning home with no memory of his experience here. But although he has no father and an absent mother, he still has a mother who, despite being self-centred and distracted, is still likely to be alarmed when she discovers her son missing. It struck me as surprisingly callous that he would just abandon her.
Moreover, it’s hinted that George’s actions at the beginning of the book have sparked a war between the spits and the taints, and that the casualties from that war could be quite severe. I’m uncertain whether George placing the broken dragon’s head on the Stoneheart and making amends would stop this war, but if it would, then it is highly irresponsible for George not to do this. Indeed, a good explanation for George’s decision to stay in unLondon would have been if George learnt that, even if he made amends, the war between the spits and the taints would begin regardless. Then George’s choice becomes escaping back to his old life, or staying to finish something that he inadvertently started, taking greater responsibility for his actions rather than the easy way out. Unfortunately, this was an opportunity lost.
Despite all this, I’m still swept along by the world Fletcher has built and the characters he has populated them with. I care strongly about George and Edie’s struggle, and will be cracking the spine on Iron Hand shortly. If you want an imaginative and rollicking good adventure, you could do much worse than taking out Stoneheart for a spin.