For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.
The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.
As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.
The Stone Knife has six main POV’s and one additional infrequent POV, for a total of seven. The two sides to the main conflict are: The Singing Empire vs. Tokob and Yalotl, who are the last two clans not under empire control.
From the Tokob side of things, we have four POVs, including a refugee from the Empire living in The Sky City. Xessa is a Tokob eja, walking the Snake Path and serving the community by securing water sources. This generally means frequent encounters with The Drowned. These are monsters that live in the water and will not hesitate to devour anyone who gets too close. They lure their prey via singing a siren’s song. Xessa is deaf and therefore immune to their song. Lilla is a Tokob Fang, walking the Jaguar Path and leading a Paw of warriors. His husband Tayan is a Tokob shaman and communes with ancestors regarding the path forward for Tokob. Illandeh is a Xentib refugee who made her way to Tokob fleeing from the Empire. She is learning how to exist in a world where her clan has been brought under the Singing Empire but she has fled and is isolated from people and culture.
On the Empire side, we have two POVs plus the one infrequent POV as well. Pilos is a High Feather from the Empire. He leads their warriors into battle and is on the Council of the Singer. Enet is a Spear and the Grand Octave to the Singer. She is the chief courtesan for The Singer and has a lot of political sway. Finally, we have The Singer himself.
The Singing Empire is very interesting. There is a song that everyone in the Empire can hear at all times. It is swayed by the moods of The Singer and thus he is exalted and his life is made as easy as possible. It wasn’t clear to me if it was an internal song or it was playing ambiently but because Xessa who is deaf cannot hear the song, I have to assume it is in the air of the Empire itself. The song is spread through pyramids capped with songstone and as individual clans are conquered the boundaries of the pyramids are pushed further. It makes for an interesting conquering dynamic because those you’ve conquered are now literally ‘under the song’.
As always there are some POVs you gravitate towards more than others, for me I loved Enet and Tayan. Enet is playing the long-haul political game, it demands sacrifice from her and yet it could fall down around her regardless. She is flawed, she is manipulative and I loved seeing the Empire from her perspective. Tayan on the other hand is a shaman who journeys to the Singing Empire in an attempt to make peace before Tokob is conquered. Seeing the Empire from his eyes and the culture difference between the two areas was incredible.
Plot-wise it’s fairly straightforward, the empire conquering and the clan resisting. I’d say it’s a pretty slow start overall as you juggle getting to know six characters and two sides of the conflict, and then the ending picks up. The last 15% of the book I blazed through in a sitting because the action does ramp up and you’re not sure where characters are left. At the end of the book there is one major thread that is left hanging (which led to me picking up the sequel immediately).
I loved the mesoamerican setting, the jungle setting was incredible to get into. The eja’s also have animal companions which are adorable and loyal. An additional aspect of the conflict surrounds The Drowned, or the Holy Setatmeh depending on who you talk to and the entire opening scene sets the tone on these creatures so well. These are mostly aquatic creatures with gills that live in water sources across this continent. They will not hesitate to pull humans into the water and drown them (hence their name). However, the Singing Empire revere them as god and sacrifice slaves regularly so they’re able to cross the water safely. Tokob eja’s entire purpose is to secure the water source for the clan by fighting the Drowned at the river, they are predators. This creates a clash of religions and major culture shock when clans are brought under the song.
From a diversity standpoint, this is a queer normative world which I thought was really well done. I think as we see more and more authors incorporate queer characters into their work it’s important to ensure it feels like a natural part of the world they’ve built and not something shoehorned in as a selling feature. I also really loved how Xessa and being deaf in the Tokob culture was a normal part of life. Everyone was able to speak their hand language to communicate. Being deaf made Xessa a better eja because she is immune to the songs of the Drowned.
Overall I really enjoyed the first installment of The Songs of the Drowned and look forward to continuing on. I’d recommend this for fans of a slower build book with nuanced characters. The sweeping nature of the cast and continent calls to mind A Song of Ice and Fire or the God-King Chronicles by Mike Brooks. I’d also point to Between Earth and Sky by Rebecca Roanhorse for that similar atmosphere and setting.