The Bleeding Stone by Joseph John Lee


The island nation of Ferranda is the jewel of the Acrarian Kingdom, and its Founder, Aritz a Mata, is revered as a god amongst men. But twenty-five years ago, Aritz was merely a man, a colonizer, an Invader seeking glory and fame in the name of his King and Queen, and Ferranda was a nameless union of indigenous Tribes, reverent of the heightened powers and aptitudes granted to them by their Animal Deities, but sundered by the foreigners claiming their lands to the south.

In the unconquered north, the Stone Tribe has for fifteen years offered a safe haven for the southern Tribes displaced by Aritz’s Invaders, whose occupying march north has been ostensibly halted by a dense forest barrier dividing north and south. Among the Stone people lives Sen, an outcast for the circumstances of her birth, preserved in society only by her status as daughter of her Tribe’s Chief. Forever relegated to the fringes of society, she is forced to watch as countless of her kin, including her sister and brother, complete their rites of passage into adulthood and accordingly earn their aptitudes by the Deity to whom they share an affinity – the Bear, the Wolf, or the Owl.

Despite this, Sen finds comfort in her life of forced solitude with her close inner circle, but hers is a comfort in days of waning tenuous peace. When Aritz’s technologically-advanced forces push north, Sen is thrust into a singular quest to rescue one of her precious few captured in the ensuing struggle. While her goal is earnest – save someone dear to her and prove her worth to her Tribe – her people’s goal is far more dire: survival in the face of uncertainty.


The Bleeding Stone is a character-driven fantasy that starts slow and builds to an emotionally devastating ending.

The characters are the highlight of this novel. The book is a slow-burn but I never felt bored because of how quickly I became invested in the characters. The story focuses on Sen and her family. The tribes of Ferranda worship 3 animal deities and each member of the tribe is blessed by one of them depending on when they were born, granting each person specific abilities based on the deity. Due to circumstances of her birth, Sen is not accepted by any of these deities, and is an outcast. The only reason she is alive is because her father is the chief of their tribe. This has driven her to self-destructive behaviors and strain her relationships with family and friends. The author does a great job in writing Sen’s self-loathing and how it affects those close to her, as well as how they refuse to give up on her even when has given up on herself.

Much of the book is spent on establishing relationships between characters, both friendly and antagonistic. Most of the plot events occur to help us understand the characters and their motivations, and invest the reader in what will happen to them. The author handles this expertly and if you are primarily a character-driven reader, you will love this book. Each of the characters are unique and the side characters feel real and fleshed out. All of this work in building out the characters leads us to the ultimately crushing ending of the book. I was so invested in these characters that the ending shocked me and left me reeling but also wanting to start the next book immediately because I had to know what happened next.

The structure of the book is not linear, we hop back and forth through time and location. This initially confused me because when I started a new chapter I wasn’t sure if events I had read about previously had already occurred or not. But not too far into the book I understood better where I was, and it wasn’t an issue for the rest of the novel. The author also helpfully includes the date and location at the beginning of each chapter for easy reference. After I got used to the structure, I enjoyed the time jumps and I thought the author employed them well. It can be hit or miss in novels to jump around like this but it was handled gracefully, letting us see moments of the past and future when they would have the most impact, and when we had enough context to understand them fully.

I also really enjoyed the magic and world building of this novel. The previously mentioned animal deities grant each member of the tribe a special ability but not every person receive the same one. For instance, there is a fight between two characters blessed by the Bear god, but one is granted strength and the other endurance. It was interesting to see a spear fight between these two where one was vastly stronger than the other, but their opponent will outlast them if they can draw the fight out. The world is very reminiscent of post-colonial America. There are a number of native tribes on the island of Ferranda that share some common cultural aspects but are each vastly different from the other tribes. A more technologically advanced society, the Acrarian Kingdom, arrives and invades the island, killing most of the native peoples in the area and enslaving the rest. The rest of the tribes mostly keep to themselves, believing that the invaders will leave them alone, until small parties of the invaders start making their way north.

There are some obvious themes of racism and colonialism explore in this novel. Sen is even ostracized by her own people for circumstances of her birth. This novel is mostly character development and set up, but I think future novels will continue to explore these themes in more depth. There is one powerful quote that I would like to highlight though, “A people and culture do not cease to exist simply because your eyes are shut.”

It is difficult to classify a sub-genre for this book, some mix of historical and epic fantasy but fully either. Regardless of genre I highly recommend this novel to any fantasy reader who loved character-driven stories. This was one of my favorite and most emotionally provocative reads of the year.