Continuing on with reviewing our 2018 Cybils finalists.
The Stone Girl’s Story by Sarah Beth Durst. Clarion Books, 2018.
The stone girl Mayka is the oldest of the stone creatures carved by the Stonemason she called Father, who knew the secret of carving marks into the stone to bring them to life and give them personalities. Mayka can’t remember exactly how long he’s been gone, with all the stone creatures taking care of his little farm on a remote mountain. When Turtle’s marks fade so that he can no longer move or talk, Mayka leaves the mountain sanctuary to find a stone mason who can refresh them. Two rowdy stone birds, Jaklo and Risa, sneak along with her. On their way to the city, they also meet a translucent red stone dragon, Siannasi Yondolada Quilasa, or Si-Si for short. She wants to come along because she’s quite upset that her marks limit her to being beautiful, with no other set purpose in life.
Mayka may be centuries old, but her life has been quite sheltered. Even though carved stone beasts of burden or guard dogs are common, fully intelligent, free-willed – and flying in the case of the birds – stone creatures or people are not. A friendly apprentice, Garit, takes them to a master carver who doesn’t see them as people – just interesting experiments, ready to be taken under his control. Mayka will have to learn, and quickly, before she and her friends are made captive forever.
This starts off a little on the slow side, with descriptions of the beautifully carved stone creatures and buildings, and of the countryside. But it picks up once they’re in the city, with the danger of captivity and a rampaging stone monster. There are deep themes here about slavery and the ability to write one’s own story that are beautifully handled. The topic of artificial intelligence or AI is one that’s more often handled in adult science fiction books like Ancillary Justice or the Murderbot Diaries. Illuminae is a teen book that deals with the question of whether or not AIs can be considered real people. It was a delightful surprise to see the same issue dealt with in a fantasy setting, and for middle grade, even if the creatures here are clearly sentient and need to be treated as such. I was not sure we needed the human romance that came at the very end of the story, but the ending before the end – Mayka’s own story – was beautiful.
I also enjoyed some of Sarah Beth Durst’s other work, including Journey across the Hidden Islands and Queen of Blood (this one is for adults and is indeed quite bloody.)