5/5 stars — starkly gripping historical fantasy that reads like a war movie with the toxic glorification stripped away
T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series has been playing the long game with my feelings. In the novellas and Where Oblivion Lives, I cared about Diago, Miquel, and Raphael. When they were in danger, I bit my nails and read on, hoping for a happy ending. But sometime between reading Where Oblivion Lives and picking up Carved from Stone and Dream, they put down roots in my heart. The time skip between the first novel and this one means Raphael is a teenager; I found myself mourning those years I didn’t get to read about like he was my own family member. Maybe it’s that the stakes were higher in this book than previous ones and maybe Frohock’s been working on her emotional-prose right hook. Either way, this book is one that will stick with me for a long time.
Carved from Stone and Dream is a genre-blending gem that injects an already fraught era of history with elements of fantasy and horror. In 1939 Europe, two families, the organization to which they belong, and their allies face off against an old foe with new and terrible friends. The enemy nefilim are bent on digging up an ancient and powerful enemy. A drug turns nefilim into berserkers…if it doesn’t destroy their minds first. And in glimpses of the future, the threat of the Holocaust looms.
Diago and Guillermo’s trip to the French headquarters of the uprooted Spanish nefilim takes a detour when they pursue a traitor and discover a massive enemy operation spearheaded by Guillermo’s estranged brother, their longtime foe Jordi Abelló. Meanwhile, Miquel goes toe to toe with his mental limits during his own run-in with Abelló’s supporters. I enjoyed that Diago and Miquel operated separately in this novel because it showed how well their characters complement each other. Diago is forced to embrace his daimon side, which thrives on negative emotions, and pushes its addictive call back with healthy coping mechanisms his husband spent years helping him learn. Miquel confronts his limits and grows as a character because of Diago’s past support. (“In another incarnation, Miquel might have fought to the death, but Diago had taught him to retreat in strength.”) Ironically, it’s by letting them operate alone that we see the importance of their relationship.
Ysa and Raphael have grown into quick-witted, foul-mouthed teenagers, and both are forced into responsibilities beyond their years by the war. Raphael, determined to prove his worth to Los Nefilim, tails a suspected enemy and finds his way into hell on earth. Ysa, acting as leader of Los Nefilim in her father’s absence, struggles to be more than her age and gender in the eyes of her father’s soldiers. The latter leads to bits like this: “You forget, Carlos, Mamá is a doctor, and I’ve assisted her in the clinic. We’ve treated the shits as well as gunshot wounds. So there’s little you can say to shock us ladies.” (And now you can join me in being excited that the next book in the series will focus on Ysa!)
I gush about the magic system every time I review a Los Nefilim book, but the gorgeous tactile descriptions and technical specificity of the music-related terms took this novel’s action scenes to an even higher level. Parts like this gave me chills: “Guillermo jerked his gloves from his hands and snatched a beam of the day’s last light. Twisting the pale gold shaft into a ball, he shouted his song.” Infiltrating an enemy compound in a pocket realm culminates in a lightning-paced magical skirmish near the end of the book, so that’s just a taste of the incredible fight scenes.
I have a notoriously hard time doing justice to the books I’ve loved most when it comes review time, so I’m going to wrap up with a list of things I appreciated.
the author’s note at the start that acts as a “previously on” refresher section of previous books’ plot highlights
this opening paragraph: “Winter hit the Pyrenees hard with ice as treacherous as postwar loyalties. Both could kill with a single slip.”
Carme, the master sigil-trap-setter and an all-around badass
clever foreshadowing all over the place (Guilleermo’s signet and lighter in the first chapter? His discussion of the power of symbols??)
strong, powerful men being emotionally vulnerable together and supporting each other. Characters and a plot that directly challenge toxic masculinity. “Be aware of your feelings. Nurture your empathy for others, and the evil within you will die.”
the prose! This is another thing I always say about Frohock’s writing, but she’s a master wordsmith who can make you flinch in disgust or crack a smile at the unlikeliest time.
For Frohock’s signature horror element, we’ve got the Grigori: disgraced angels who will burn the world to free themselves from the abyss that is their prison. Samyaza, his tin mask, and what’s underneath the mask will have me jumping at shadows for quite a while.
the queen of the Les Néphilim has a female consort, and there are allusions to the third member of Raphael and Ysa’s “three musketeers” friend group also being attracted to women. Further, Raphael is shown as attracted to multiple genders.
To readers seeking intelligently constructed historical fantasy, gritty narratives that don’t glorify war, characters who dismantle gender stereotypes and denounce racism and fascist violence: this book is for you. Although it can be read alone, I highly recommend starting at the beginning with the Los Nefilim novella trio, or at the very least with Where Oblivion Lives. I’m going to go out on a slight limb and say this will likely appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, because if her storytelling style and the Napoleonic war with dragons are your thing, WWII with angels and angel-daimon hybrids will probably also be up your alley.
Content warnings: war-typical violence, mentioned rape, mutilation, racism, torture, body horror, scorpions, intended rape of a child, drug abuse, mentions of an abusive relationship between side characters, allusion to Holocaust death camps
** I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. **