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The brief biography of Sarah Tolmie that accompanies The Stone Boatmen suggests that the novel is in part derived from her fascination with the fourteenth-century poem, Piers Plowman, by William Langland. Piers Plowman is a dream vision, a form popular in medieval writing, in which unsurprisingly the author claims to have dreamed the story that is being presented. The dream narrative's primary characteristic is its necessary obliqueness: while dream images may be vividly realistic they often conceal deeper meanings. Thus, a dream poem might explore a deeply personal experience, such as the death of a child (Pearl), an intense religious experience (The Dream of the Rood), or as in the case of Piers Plowman provide a history of Christianity and a powerful critique of the writer's own times. In each case, the dream structure functions as a protective distancing—this is the dream speaking, not the conscious human being—while its allegorical nature nonetheless enables the writer to say what's on his mind.

The influence of Piers Plowman on The Stone Boatmen may be oblique but nonetheless pervasive. The novel is set in what might seem to be a dream world: a fluid landscape with no shape, no names, only the most basic of geographical features—sea, harbor, land, city. In the city—at this point it has no name—is a palace, and in that palace is a prince. It is a city which is built on elaborate ceremonies. As the novel opens Prince Nerel, no-name, stripped of his own name at his accession to the throne five years earlier, awaits the annual feast of the Perihelion. During the feast he will perform a series of baffling private ceremonies, while his public duties are undertaken by his nerelkho, a double chosen from among the men of the city, for whom these duties are presumably just as puzzling.

This year, however, things are to be different. While ordinarily the nerelkho might bear only a fleeting resemblance to Nerel, the majordomo has discovered Azul, one of the fisherfolk, who looks as though he could be Nerel's twin. It has frequently been noted that Nerel looks exactly like the stone boatmen in the harbor, a hundred mysterious statues of the ancestors which lead out to sea, a circumstance which suggests his reign will be a fortunate one. For Azul, as a fisherman, such a resemblance is considered closer to a misfortune: his very name has been chosen to ward against potential disaster. That the Prince has an identical nerelkho is unprecedented and suggests that strange currents have been sent in motion. And indeed, change is on its way, though not in the dramatic fashion that such a coincidence would imply.

While all this—the huge palace, the interminable, apparently meaningless ceremonies, the sense of the palace and city existing in a world of their own—might seem reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast the two novels are in fact very different. Peake's world has already reached the point of no return, its ceremonies long since emptied of genuine significance, and carried out by Lord Sepulchrave only because he has no alternative. By contrast, Nerel is alive to the potential of his ceremonies, even while he recognizes that as yet he finds no personal significance in them. His very name, or lack of it, positions him as a blank tablet, awaiting some sort of revelation. And while Steerpike's irruption into the closed system that is Gormenghast merely hastens its inevitable decay, Azul's ceremonial introduction into palace life instead brings new possibilities into being. While Nerel may be symbolically detached from his own identity during the Perihelion ceremonies, with Azul as his nerelkho he is finally able to understand in a more literal sense his ceremonial death and renewal, and to understand how this represents his dual identity as a public and private person. As a result, Nerel experiences a quiet transformation as he at last begins to find a sense of purpose, a sense of purpose that will, in unexpected ways, shape the rest of the story.

Titus Groan's epiphany can only be brought about by a sudden and violent expulsion from Gormenghast, followed by a wanderjahr during which he learns about the outside world. For Nerel and Azul, epiphany comes as a more gradual process, in the form of connections made when least expected: not least when Azul, a working fisherman, instinctively recognizes the functions of instruments left behind by the ancestors, instruments that Nerel has always assumed must have ritual rather than practical significance. At the same time the presence of Azul enables Nerel to see his own role in the world more clearly:

All along inside him he had borne this vastness, an interior copy of the world, which name came out and touched ends with the world he walked on. No name could compass it, for it meant everything, all things in one, from which no part could be distinguished. (p. 15)

Excited by such revelations, and also by Azul's instinctive yet appropriate responses to palace ceremonies, drawn from the rituals of his own people—"He had been the man in whom the ritual came to life" (p. 42)—Nerel determines to record the city's ceremonies, a project which irrevocably changes the relationship between the city and the palace. Nerel is transformed from a remote figure into a much-loved ruler, seen often around the city, gradually breaking down many of the barriers that previously existed between the two groups. In doing this he literally embodies the idea of connection.

Nerel's exploration of the city's most important activities is all-encompassing while throwing into sharp relief the many microcosms of which the city is composed. Yet when he attempts to give Azul a continuing role in palace life, Azul baulks at the idea, conscious of the gulf that remains between the two groups. It is only when he falls in love with the Lady Megarion that integration of a sort begins to occur. The gradual unfurling of this first section of the novel, its dream-like quality, reflects the caution of both city and the palace, for whom change comes so slowly it is as if it isn't happening at all. Yet both Azul and Nerel realize that all along things must have been changing, imperceptibly slowly.

Tolmie describes Azul and Nerel's growing friendship and the consequences thereof with such delicacy and deftness it is impossible not to be drawn into their story, and that of their children. It is Mahar, Azul's son, who takes the next momentous step and decides to set sail in search of the Ancestors' original city, still talked about in children's stories. Mahar believes that the boatmen statues in the harbor point in the direction of this lost city, and sets about constructing a huge ocean-going vessel of a design so contentious he is thrown out of the boatbuilders' guild for building it. It is only through Nerel's intervention that the ship is completed at all, and everyone has misgivings about the voyage.

Mahar is, by his own admission, bored by the emphasis on ceremony and ritual in his own city. He is also acutely aware that he does not belong fully either to the city or the palace and his determination to be a sailor and boat-builder is a deliberately calculated expression of that uncertain status. It is also indicative of Mahar's future role as a different kind of bridge, one between the different cities of the Ancestors.

If the first section of the novel is almost hallucinatory in its tone, then Mahar's portion of the story, while still short on concrete detail, is nonetheless marked by energy and movement as he voyages forth. The smooth surface of life in the city is for the first time disturbed as the Aphelion moves away from the comforting familiarity of city life.

But the story Tolmie gives us is one of arrivals rather than of the journeys themselves. Mahar reaches first the city ruled over by the queen, Naran. This is the city where there is "a word and a name for everything" (p. 65), almost literally so, with words "everywhere, engraved on every surface, above every doorway" (p. 66). It is the public nature of words that delights Mahar, the way in which people "spoke for themselves and not just in the forms of ritual" (p. 71). What Mahar misses is that while the magic of words themselves is acknowledged, their function in communicating ideas has been forgotten. Inscribing the word on the object it represents has become more important than conveying the concept to others. Mahar notes that "those scholars who knew the ancient works at all cared little about making things work and were bogged down in mazes of detail" (p. 72). While information has undeniably been lost along the way, the implication seems to be that much of it survives. What has been lost is curiosity and the inclination to do anything with the contents of the libraries. This seems to be tied to the slow pace of life in each city. Mahar's sailors had hoped to find something new but are disappointed to find Naran's city is not unlike their own. When they finally reach the legendary city of the Ancestors, ruled over by the bird-priests, they find the same again. Few people are resistant to change if it comes but neither do they actively seek it out. The world seems held in a benign stasis. Not even the unexpected arrival of the Aphelion, can immediately alter this. The ship and its crew are instead literally written into the city’s discourse, covered in words in an elaborate ceremony before they sail on.

By this time, the reader will have realized that The Stone Boatmen itself is not quite what it initially seems. There is a temptation to read it simply as a particularly lyrical fantasy novel, one that is perhaps a little old-fashioned, even a little fey in places, in keeping with that dream vision. Yet it seems to me that Tolmie is deliberately challenging a very specific science-fictional trope, the one in which a novel's inhabitants become increasingly aware that their ancestors had skills and knowledge that they no longer possess. Usually, one exceptional person somehow manages to intuit all this, the inhabitants gladly recover all that knowledge in the blink of an eye and their lives are instantly transformed for the better. When Mahar sails his remarkable vessel into the harbor of Naran's city, this should signal the moment when everything changes but Tolmie's approach is rather more intriguing. Simply, here is no rapid transformation. Instead, Tolmie's novel is less bothered about these moments of epiphany, more concerned about the responsibilities such rediscovery brings with it. Increasingly, the characters come to wonder why the Ancestors decided to conceal their knowledge in the first place.

Because, as Mahar and the others come to realize, this was an entirely conscious decision on the part of Harel, the last king and the first bird-priest. The bird-priests are perhaps the most intriguing element of the novel. They practice a form of government based almost exclusively on the observation of the behavior of the golden temple birds. It sounds absurd yet, as Mahar sees, it is not what the birds tell the priests that is important so much as the way in which the priests learn to observe what the birds are doing. A similarly intense scrutiny is then applied to the problems of the inhabitants of the Ancestors' city. The close relationship between the bird-priests, led by Herodias, and the city folk is vastly different to that between Nerel and his people at the beginning of the story, yet we see that Nerel, almost by accident, has begun of his own accord to create a similar arrangement, though for an entirely different reason.

Once links between the three cities are re-established The Stone Boatmen shifts tempo, its meditative pace becoming much livelier, almost mercurial, reflecting the changes wrought by Mahar's marriage to Naran, and to the presence of Ahimsa, later called the Rose Poet, and her daughter, Fjorel within the story. If Nerel, Azul and Mahar are the initiators of a new desire for connection, then Fjorel and the Rose Poet represent a flowering of creative energies brought about by those connections. The circulation of ideas is as much an intellectual process as it is the exchange of actual technique. Fjorel in particular contributes a new understanding of the intentions of Harel, drawn from her own visions and from a strange telepathic connection she has forged with Maleki, one of the temple birds. The belief is that Maleki contains the spirit of Harel, though how he might have got there is unclear to everyone except the reader, and even that explanation depends on making one particular reading of the novel.

And this is to barely scratch the surface of this narrative, which seems constantly to fold itself into new shapes in the reader’s mind. Expectations are often wonderfully confounded. For example, Tolmie plays with ideas of doubling and interconnectedness but while twins recur as a motif, their presence important to the novel's outcome, they are never fetishized or assigned any mystical significance. She is fascinated too by the process of creativity and much of the novel’s central section is devoted to the Rose Poet's apprenticeship as a writer, the way in which she cunningly combines the old and the new, and at the heart of it, the palpable joy she takes in discovering her abilities as a writer.

The narrative itself is a complex structure—unsurprising perhaps given that weaving plays a significant role in one portion of the novel—but it never overwhelms the story's unfolding. The reader is never forced to admire the "cleverness" of the storytelling. Instead, one has a great sense of the harmonious interaction of the story’s disparate parts. The narrative is never less than utterly compelling and absorbing yet it mostly eschews high drama for a steady, even recounting of the story. It is in so many ways the complete antithesis of modern fantasy writing, a novel that deals with the intellectual problems of a world rather than battles or magic. Which suggests to me that one way to read The Stone Boatmen is as an allegorical questioning of the assumptions that underlie so much modern genre writing.

It is a nourishing sort of book, the kind of novel where you want to make notes as you go, because it raises so many interesting points. It is also a book that develops with each subsequent reading. I've now read it three times and I’m still finding more to think about. This is not to suggest that it is entirely perfect. One might feel a slight unease at a certain binarism creeping in at times, as women intuit and men deal in the empirical, for all that women exert at least as much power as men. One might also suggest that Fjorel's dissemination of skills acquired from her visions becomes a little too much to accept at times but when it happens Tolmie manages to pull back just in time. And the stumbles are forgivable when balanced against the rest of the novel.

Whether or not The Stone Boatmen is but a dream remains for the reader to decide, but this I can say: this is a novel that will remain long in my mind, because of the quality of the storytelling and the ideas it explores. I cannot recall reading anything quite like it in recent years. It is perhaps a little early in the reading year to say this but I am sure already that it will be one of my books of 2014.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic, freelance copyeditor, and graduate student. She is currently working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation. She also writes a regular review column for Weird Fiction Review.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
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