The Blood Stone by Jamila Gavin

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I was sick last week, which meant a lot of time in bed reading my favorite literary comfort food, young adult novels. Mostly I was revisiting old favorites, but at one point I did feel well enough to walk down to the library (best thing about my apartment is being 4 blocks from a library branch) and pick up some books I’d put on hold earlier, including, conveniently, a YA fantasy book - The Blood Stone.

The Blood Stone is definitely on the “younger” side of “young adult.” The protagonist is 12, and he reacts to the world in a way that 12-year-olds can relate to, without the messy adolescent confusion that tends to accompany things like coming to grips with one’s sexuality and being on the cusp of independent adulthood without being recognized as adult - things I like in my YA books, but are certainly not required for enjoyment. The story takes place early in the 17th century, first in Venice and then India during the height of the Mogul empire, and points between.

Filippo Veroneo’s jeweler father, Geronimo, left Venice before Filippo was born, to travel to the capital of the Mogul empire, famed for its riches and work with gems. He left the family in the care of a man named Bernardo Pagliarin, who married the eldest Veroneo daughter, and who is a jerk. A well-connected jerk who can block the eldest son’s claims to be the legitimate head of the household and continue to treat the family badly and demand their wealth when he goes broke. Which news comes at the same time as reports that Papa Veroneo is being held hostage by a warlord in Afganistan and must be ransomed if he is ever to return home. Filippo is 12 at the time, and in order to get the precious “Ocean of the Moon” diamond (the titular Blood Stone) to Geronimo without Pagliarin finding out and taking it for himself, or leaving the family without any possibility of challenging his dominance, he’s sent off with the stone and a mysterious man who claims to have been his father’s fellow prisoner, sworn to help him and his family.

But there is another man lurking about who is even more mysterious, who also has ties to Geronimo Veroneo. And someone along the way really doesn’t want Filippo to succeed in his mission.

The story is part historical travel adventure (with explicit parallels to The Odyssey), part mystery, and the supernatural elements of the story share more with magical realism than typical genre fantasy. While nothing about the writing was vague or overly-stylized, I came away from the book with an impression of a certain indistinct dreaminess. So, while Filippo faces quite a bit of danger in his journey, it wasn’t a sense of compelling action or excitement that kept me reading, but the mystery of the two strange men and what that damn flute music meant. Together with the way the fantasy elements are handled, the aesthetic reminds me more of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than J. R. R. Tolkien or Marion Zimmer Bradley. You’ll never hear me call that a bad thing, but it may not be what everyone expect from a YA fantasy.

Of course, Jamila Gavin is not Garcia Marquez (who else is?), and I didn’t love everything about The Blood Stone - part of that magical realism aesthetic is supported by abrupt tense shifts that were sometimes odd or distracting. And while the final reveal about Sadiqui Iqbal Khan was complicated and heartbreaking and wonderful, Rodriguez was a little anti-climactic. Maybe I was just looking for a more complex conspiracy plot? I think reading too many Vorkosigan books has left me paranoid. Regardless, The Blood Stone is a fun book with a lot of beautiful moments, and was just the sort of thing I like to curl up with when I’m not feeling well. And also read when I am not sick.