Historical fiction author Angus Donald turns his skills to historical fantasy under the pen name Angus Macallan in Gates of Stone, a “debut” novel with a central setting evocative of 18th century Indonesia. Drawing on his studies of the region while living and working there, MacAllan uses the historical and geographical reality of the islands of Indonesia to inform the archipelago of his fictional world, Laut Besar.
The novel begins with the plight of Princess Katerina of the Ice-Bear Empire, who, on her 16th birthday, is denied the throne she stands to inherit by right due to her sex. She proceeds to murder the foreign-born lord she’s been ordered to marry and set out on a campaign of conquest to reclaim what is hers. Her journey takes her to the tropical islands of Laut Besar in search of the wealth she’ll need to muster an army. There, her path intersects with that of Prince Arjun whose own island kingdom was destroyed by an evil sorcerer; the fiend then fled to Laut Besar in possession of the magical sword of the prince’s ancestors. The sword is a relic of mystical import that could unleash hell on earth, as the destinies of the princes and princess from different worlds will proved to be more intertwined—and far reaching—than either could’ve imagined.
Using Indonesia as a basis for a fantasy kingdom lends the novel an immediate sense of unique geography not found in the familiar, Western European-derived fantasy model, and the author’s experience of the real place and its history permeates the culture, societies, religion, and magic of Laut Besar. From rich courts, to deadly jungles, to inhospitable mountains, Macallan paints a fascinating world for readers to immerse themselves in. Some of the islands of the archipelago match Indonesian geography (Yawa being similar to Java, for example), but there is much invention here as well: the titular Gates of Stone certainly do not exist in Indonesia, although in reality and in fiction, control of the various straits has been contested for centuries.
There is a note of colonialism and colonial politics in the narrative. Its competing Great Powers —the moving forces that push and pull the characters—are inspired by, but not necessarily directly mapped on, the invading powers that shaped 18th and 19th century Indonesia. In this world, the Ice-bear Empire (clearly modeled on Russia) has a warm weather port that it lacked in our world, and it is from here that Princess Katerina launches her path into the Laut Besar. There also appears to be a resurgent version of a Chinese Empire far less insular than the one in our timeline, as well as a powerful Federation inspired by India. There are mentions of Niho and their knights, a possible analogue to Japan and its samurai. The Laut Besar is indeed a playground of Great Powers, with the smaller local ones pushed around by all and sundry.
The occasional “Extract from Ethnographic Travels” that preface many chapters do some of the heavy lifting in terms of worldbuilding. These short pieces clearly and cleverly point events that took place in this world prior to the start of the narrative, providing a guide to the places and cultures of the Laut Besar that the characters might well have consulted, had they a copy. It’s a handy way to sketch out the factors that helped contribute to the catastrophic events of the novel, filling in spots in the worldbuilding that might not otherwise be immediately discernible from the plot. It’s a useful arrow in the fantasy writer’s quiver, and Macallan wields it skillfully.
Though there is much to savor about the worldbuilding, the novel truly begins to shine as the characters come into their own. The book luxuriates in its page count a bit, and takes its time allowing the cast to develop the sort of depth that makes us truly appreciate the choices they are faced with and grasp the enormity of the decisions they make. Take Katerina, the princess of the Ice-Bear Empire, who kills her new husband in chapter one. It’s a bold choice, providing the early misimpression that she is going to be a primary antagonist of the series, rather than its primary point-of-view character. It is only as we follow her journey that we are able to put her act in the proper context. Indeed, all of the major characters encountered mid-conflict, enmeshed in their own struggles, and the novel works backward to flesh out who they are and provide strong reasons to care about their plights. The minor characters are similarly well drawn, with arcs and motivations of their own. The book rewards patience with getting to know its robust cast.
Of particular note is the very human face put on the antagonist, the sorcerer Mangku. In contrast to many fantasy antagonists, his plans and schemes are flawed, and we see him have to adapt on the fly as his plots don’t always turn out as he’d hoped. This fallibility grounds him in the world and as another character struggling to achieve his aims, rather than painting him as a nameless, seemingly implacable force that we all expect will eventually be defeated come the end of the series. His powers may be alien and strange, but he remains relatable, for all that his plans are reprehensible.
All of that said, the novel’s action beats are likely to draw the most accolades from readers. Setting the novel in a quasi-18th century setting means Gates of Stone fits nicely alongside the work of “flintlock fantasy” authors like Django Wexler, Brian McClellan, and Stina Leicht. While there are stunningly rendered feats of swordsmanship and hand-to-hand fighting to savor, it is the soldiers with cannons and muskets who provide the lever for the ambitions of those who control them, particularly Princess Katerina. The action-laden finale, which takes us to the titular Gates of Stone, is an stunningly well-conceived conflict, packed with successes, reverses, surprises, and pulse-pounding incident. I was reminded favorably of real-world depictions of the siege of Malta, and it is clear that the author has drawn deeply from historical accounts of battles to lend his own invented ones authenticity.
Gates of Stone is a strong, focused turn into fantasy by an experienced novelist seeking to ply the waters of a new genre. The strong foundations he lays in this series-starter hold much promise for additional stories in a fully realized world.