Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Stone Road by GR Matthews

Sometimes, a book's title can be incredibly apt. This is one of these times.

Take Stone. It is obvious. Reliable. What you see is what you get and what you get is what you like. It is not perhaps something we associate with beauty yet with time, you can do the breathtaking with it. The symbolism of the road is obvious; roads are for journeys. Therefore, a stone road should be one where the start of the journey is safe and pleasant but the ending is in a far distant place to the beginning.

And, roughly speaking, that is what we get here.

The Stone Road is the tale of two young men in a fantasy not-China. Haung is a would-be soldier offered the chance to serve his Duke as one of his secret elite. Zhou is a diplomat who gets his big break in a mission to secure peace with his province's bitterest enemy - Huang's province. From there things become a bit of a flustercluck and the next thing you know is that there's mad wuxia action all over the place. Hooray! That's what I tuned in for at least.

There is a 50% chance I'm doing this review simply as an excuse to look at Martial Arts gifs

As I have already alluded to, there is nothing groundbreaking about the start of the book. It is a simple idea executed with a solid level of competence. I very nearly did this review after my post on the basics of good writing simply because The Stone Road's beginning struck me as an excellent example of an author doing the basics very well and creating a highly readable story without doing anything amazing. 

This sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise and to an extent I am doing just that. It is definitely good and it is definitely not great. If there is anything great here, it is that Matthews' authorial voice succeeds in making it very charming. There is something touching about the sincerity and naivety with which the main characters take on the tasks that are so clearly poisoned chalices. Everything is crisply narrated, leaving nothing uncompleted or question worthy in the mind. 

Of course, I didn't do this review after the post on the basics. The reason for this is that as things progress, to do so would felt more and more like underselling.

Words of wisdom for any author and/or breaker of people's faces

This is pretty difficult to do without spoiling the ever loving daylights out of the book so I shall have to use generalities. The characters become richer, fuller people and as with real people, they learn from some mistakes and not from others. By the end of the book, Huang, Zhou et al are different people and yet very recognisably the same characters we were introduced to. Matthews posted the following in the Fantasy Faction book club

"More than anything, I wanted the book to be about the growth and change of the two principal characters."

He achieves that. 

He also achieves a broadening complexity of situation, both in terms of the forces opposing the characters and the capabilities of their powers. Some of the former is a little formulaic at times; I do not mind as it is done very solidly. Some of the latter however is quite clever indeed. There is one minor plot thread in particular that had been bugging me throughout the book and is resolved in such a fashion. Normally, resolutions that rely on new knowledge of magic lack satisfaction. However, on the reveal, I realised that the pieces of the puzzle had all been there all along. That's a craftsman's touch that.

Things that should never happen mid-cuppa
Ultimately it is the little touches that make this book. It doesn't possess wildly innovative ideas or grandstanding scene-stealing characters. As fantasy books go, this is a comforting cup of tea rather than that rare single malt that your hands tremble just to touch. It reads quickly and undemandingly yet, as you go on, you realise someone lavished a lot of care on getting the cup of tea just right. 

And sometimes as a reader, all you really want is a very well made cup of tea.

The Stone Road is such a beast. And at the end of the journey, it hints at being something more. One of these days I'll have to pick up the other books in the series and see where it goes. For now though, I recommend that anyone looking for a straightforwards enjoyable character-based read with some intelligent twists start their journey here.

The Stone Road was self-published by GR Matthews and is available now at Amazon. For further information about GR Matthews and his books, visit his website.

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