I won a copy of Stones of Time through Goodreads' first reads giveaway.
This is the sequel to Demons of the Past, and immediately I liked Stones of Time better. Although Demons of the Past was OK, I felt that its plot did not delve deep enough into the social ramifications of this neo-medieval America, nor was the plot complex enough to make up for the dearth of dimension in Durante's characters. Stones of Time went a long way toward both improving the plot and increasing the complexity of its characters.
Three years have passed since the end of the first book, and Nadia is now a prisoner of the devious Ordi ex Machina. They plan to return Earth to the pastoral times of advanced technology and fast food franchises, but in order to do this, they need Nadia's eggs! Nadia, now a "demon" who can shift into the form of a puma, manages to convince her new guard to help her escape. She meets up with her old flame, Prince Andrew, rescues her other old flame, Vestro the Kelpie, and they and sundry characters flee Colorado Springs and head for Andrew's kingdom, the Pearl Isles (actually the now-island of California). Their goal: detonate an orbital nuclear bomb to set off an electromagnetic pulse that will disable electronics across America, levelling the playing field for the technology-inept forces of good. I must say, that's a fair step up from "rescue the magic ocarina and keep the demons imprisoned."
Indeed, the main characters' increasing tech savvy was refreshing. Nadia now casually mentions things like computers and cameras, although she's still surprised by some modern things, such as flashlights and paper money. She even tries to use a gun once or twice (rubbish at it so far). My predictions in my last review, that Nadia would mature from a petulant princess into a truly worthy Action Girl, have largely come true—and I'm quite glad. It made the story so much more enjoyable. Moreover, there are genuine moments of emotional turmoil for Nadia, as opposed to the manufactured love triangle we got in the first book. It helps, I think, that she has a fellow female companion on this trip; Andrew's new hotness, Anna, is a foil to Nadia, a nemesis and potential ally. I loved how Nadia discovered Anna was pregnant and then later she had to confront the fact that her own coupling with Vestro (her second time having sex, as far as we're aware) has left her pregnant and is complicating her ability to shift into the form of an animal—although, this keeps up, I may start thinking that this is a horror series instead of a fantasy series, and only the virgins are safe....
Speaking of virgins, the guard who helps Nadia escape is one of the first demons bred from Nadia's eggs. Shaden, part-human, part-dragon, can't but help bonding with Nadia and seeing her in a maternal light, even before he knows that she is, biologically, his mother. I applaud the twisted moral gradient here. It's just the right amount of disconcerting without skewing over the line to downright wrong. Also, it emphasizes the cold, clinical nature of the Ordi Ex Machina, who will go so far as to offer up their own bodies if it helps the breeding program—Shaden wasn't grown in a test tube but matured in a surrogate mother, who later acted as Nadia's "therapist" during her incarceration. Yeah, it's all one big twisted family....
Stones of Time, like Demons of the Past, is chock full of action scenes. Its action is even better, in part because Nadia is more combat-capable, but also because the fights are more varied. There's some urban warfare against Ordi Ex Machina guards as well as woodland combat and a chase sequence in a minefield. What's not to like?
Well, the book again doggedly adheres to quest-style fantasy's travel motif: book begins in point A and ends at point B, with a largely linear journey in between. The characters must hack and slash their way from A to B, once and a while pausing for some exposition or a little conflict among the protagonists, but the majority of the book is spent getting to the Pearl Isles so that they can find the launch facility. Although Durante's writing is smooth enough that I never felt like abandoning the book, I still get the sense that, in some ways, Stones of Time is just Demons of the Past redux with new-and-improved characters and extra special effects—I get story déjà vu.
For the most part, I enjoyed the new characters (particularly Shaden and Anna), and I praised Nadia's changes above. Andrew is still pretty variable, unfortunately; his unsavoury habits tend to come and go as the story requires. Vestro, although not as annoying as he was in the first book, also has a conceit that crops up only when the plot requires it (and I'm not sure I follow why "kelpie107" was the password for the bomb detonator...). As much as Stones of Time tries to give us interesting character development, however, it lacks something that Demons of the Past also lacked: a compelling and personable villain.
I don't mean the Ordi Ex Machina or its flunkies, Maurdruik the Ex-Wizard and Dr. Reichard. Yes, the Ordi Ex Machina is the story's organizational antagonist and serves that purpose well. But evil needs a face, someone who is plotting and scheming behind the scenes to dispose of the good guys before they run everything. We don't see enough of evil's face, in my opinion. Although our protagonists occasionally encountered some resistance, it seemed a safe bet they would reach the Pearl Isles and succeed in their mission—sometimes, you need a cackling villain to instill a little concern over the hero's survival. It's a shame, too, because the Ordi Ex Machina could create such a powerful villain or group of villains to oppose Nadia; so far, the most opposition she gets is from her temperamental two-year-old son and his unwitting kelpie father.
Stones of Time is a good step forward for the Damewood trilogy. I'd even go so far as it recommend it even if you don't want to read the first book—I seldom advocate this, but it's sufficient to read a plot synopsis for Demmons of the Past and then skip directly to this one.