I've been meaning to write about this book for quite a while, but if I had the time to be writing about books I'd still be doing it for money. So: my apologies for the delay, and for how short this is going to be.
Simply stated, The Stone Boatmen was the best thing I read in 2014. There's a blurb on the back of the book by Ursula K. Le Guin comparing it to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, which is pretty accurate. Tolmie's debut novel isn't nearly so slow, and it's far more optimistic in tone, but it shares with Peake's masterpiece a meditative preoccupation with time, with its variable pace and the thrill or stagnation that can accompany that variability.
The Stone Boatmen is about the reconnection of three societies who have lost touch with each other, their collective past, and even the true nature of their own cultures. It's a celebration of the joy of discovery on a civilization-spanning scale. But it's also about people. It's about a ruler and a fisherman discovering a profound friendship that transcends class and tells them as much about their community as it does about themselves. About the intersection of romance and the minutiae of court politics in a city built on words, and about finding your way via the beauty and stillness of the close observation and contemplation of nature.
That's a lot of things to be about, but The Stone Boatmen resists classification. It's a sweeping fantasy about the nature of culture! It's a multi-generational family drama! It's a romance! It's an exploration adventure! It's a metaphor for the European Renaissance! It sounds like there's too much going on to make a coherent narrative, but nothing about The Stone Boatmen ever feels busy or rushed or haphazard and everything connects to a degree that left me astonished. Tolmie shifts easily from the grand to the commonplace, and her prose is by turns lyrical and direct. This post is probably frustratingly vague, but honestly it's difficult to say anything about this book without feeling like you're leaving a dozen equally important, interrelated things out. Just buy the damn thing already.
Speaking of: I have an unfortunate feeling that The Stone Boatmen is not going to get the attention it deserves. The cover is serviceable but hardly striking (though it's very well made object), and Aqueduct Press, while clearly onto something with their publishing program, has no real distribution to speak of. I had to order Tolmie's short story collection, NoFood, direct from Aqueduct's website because my local bookseller was unable to bring it in (and because fuck Amazon).
Finally, a disclosure: Sarah Tolmie (forever Doctor Sarah Tolmie, to me) is a professor at the University of Waterloo, where I got my undergraduate degree, and she was in fact the professor who directed my independent study of AS Byatt's Biographer's Tale.