Song of Blood and Stone is an ambitious fantasy. Not only does L. Penelope hope to create an adventurous story in a coherent world full of possibilities and challenges, she also wants to reflect the struggles of our own world, our own unworthy fears of the Other, our bigotry, and our callous indifference to suffering if those who suffer aren’t like us. That’s a lot of weight for one story to carry, but somehow Penelope manages to do it well enough for me to want more.

Jasminda is singular in her homeland of Elsira–a biracial woman in a homogenous nation, the daughter of an Elsiran mother and a Lagrimari father who had been a refugee. The Elsirans are a nation centered on technology while the Lagrimari society is centered on magic which they call EarthSinging, so we have that age-old conflict between science and faith, technology and magic. They are easy to tell apart because Elsirans are White and Lagrimari are Black. Jasminda takes after her father, a Black woman in a White country whose people fear the magic she may hold.

Together with Jack, an injured Elsiran she rescues from some Lagrimari soldiers who unknowingly crossed The Mantle, a magical border between the two countries, she will do whatever she can to save Elsira from the invaders because she has no love for Lagrimar, an autocratic realm ruled by the cruel True Father who demands his people’s magic to maintain his power, enslaving his people.

Of course, Jasminda and Jack fall in love, something that is simply not acceptable in Elsiran society. Can they forge a future when custom, bigotry, and even invading warriors are ranged against them?

I liked Song of Blood and Stone quite a bit. In particular, I liked Jasminda, a heroine with grit. Jack is decent, too, but he is more constrained by tradition and is sometimes a bit obtuse. There is plenty of intrigue and treachery and fascinating characters, enough for a book twice this size, which is my main complaint about the book. Things happen too fast after they get to the capitol.

I like the ambition of the book, the challenge to bigotry, the need for compassion for refugees, even the “fake news” headlines inciting xenophobic fears, these allegorical reflections of our current challenges are appreciated. I like it when books have bigger ambitions than just telling a story. It’s also time for a Black fantasy heroine after the racist controversy about Black actors playing characters in The Hunger Games. Of course, Jasminda is not the first Black fantasy heroine, but this book seems prime material for a triumphant movie series.

The pace at the beginning is fantastic. We begin to learn about the society, about our characters and the dilemmas they must conquer, but then, in the capitol all of a sudden, we have all these new characters and plots that just do not get enough time to develop. We have moving scenes that illustrate the cultural conflict that are perfectly written, such as a confrontation over food distribution that ends in tragedy, then we have another plot for stealing an inheritance explained in a few sentences. This book really needed another hundred pages.

Of course, this is the first in a new series, so there will be more to come, but I think there are so many possible plot complications already in play, that with unfinished business and new business, I hope Penelope will give herself more room to expand the story.

This book is YA and will appeal to high school students and possibly tweens. I think the violence, which includes shooting a child, threats of rape, and warfare, as well as some explicit (not clinically so) sex may be a bit mature for junior high.

Song of Blood and Stone will be released May 1st. I received an advance reader’s copy from the publisher through a Shelf Awareness drawing.