Stone and Steel is a Black, queer fantasy novella by Eboni Dunbar that follows Aaliyah, General of Titus, as she returns home from conquering the southern lands in the name of the Queen. It should be a time of triumph for her, a homecoming after years of fighting and a reunion with her girlfriend, the Queen. But Aaliyah returns to find that the Queen, rather than fulfilling the promises she made the people and Aaliyah, has followed in the footsteps of the King they deposed and funneled all the kingdom’s money, magic, and power upwards for her own benefit, leaving the people worse off than they were before. Aaliyah has to grapple with her past and present relationships, her duty to the people, and her future path to set things right. I really enjoyed the premise of this novella, and I enjoyed Aaliyah as a character who struggled to chance her own circumstances and who is now struggling to correct her mistakes, but who is incredibly competent at her job and inspires loyalty among her troops. I also always enjoy fantasy where being queer is just a state of being and not one of the problems – sometimes you want to battle homophobia but sometimes you just want to battle the monarchy.
However, this novella is filled with perplexing relationships. Aaliyah rose out of poverty to depose a King and become a great general, and she has a complex web of relationships in both the palace and the streets. Aaliyah had no inkling that her longtime lover, Odessa, would prove to be a terrible queen, even though what we see of her memories makes it seem that she hasn’t changed much from childhood. There is the added difficulty that everyone sees them as sisters for some reason, even though they are not actually related, a detail that seemed added just to give the rest of the characters a chance to react to pseudo-incest. Aaliyah also reconnects with a former lover who is runs a crime syndicate, Mercedes, for help deposing Odessa, who we are introduced to while she is torturing someone. Aaliyah’s background as an orphan and the relationships she made on the streets are built up, but the reveals about her family make these circumstances seem suspect. I feel like additional length would have helped flesh out these relationships and make character motivations clearer, especially giving Aaliyah more depth and giving more emotional weight to the story.
The length also does not help what wants to be a fully fledged elemental magic system but is instead only seen in tantalizing glimpses. The details were good – I love that Stone mages create the city walls, for example. When Odessa and Aaliyah overthrew the old King they changed the ruling element as well as the actual ruler. I would like to see more of the kingdom’s relationships with its neighbors and with its own magic system. Aaliyah is successful as a general in spite of her lack of magic, which is a great detail, and there is the sense that she struggled hard to make herself a success to keep people from looking down on her. I would love to see the dynamics of magic and non-magic users in more detail than a novella permits.
In conclusion, there’s a lot to like about this novella. It’s Black, it’s queer, there’s a lot of tantalizing details. I love a main character who is a woman general and succeeding as someone without magic in a magical world. But the novella length hamstrings it, and there’s a sense that it is trying to cram itself into a box that’s not meant for it. I think I would have preferred this sat in development for a while to cook some more, but if you’re looking for Black queer fantasy, there’s enjoyment to be had and lots of ideas to think about. I would definitely read more from this author in the future.