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The Stone Road by G. R. Matthews

The Stone Road by G. R. Matthews
4
Book Name: The Stone Road
Author: G. R. Matthews
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Release Date: November 7, 2013

Spoiler Warning: This review contains minor spoilers.

Content Warning: This review contains excerpts from the book which briefly depict child murder and rape. A note is posted before and after the excerpt.

– – –

News would spread like the plague, everyone it touched would be changed. Fear would infect every heart, no one would be immune.

Two men stand on either side of a thirty-year conflict that has left many of their nation in ruin. Both intend to end the conflict in their own manner: one through diplomacy, the other through violence. Two nations, Yaart and Wubei are attempting to settle that extensive struggle by sending out their diplomats to meet amongst the growing conflict. One of these main characters, Zhou, is appointed as a Junior Diplomat to the Venerable Hsin, who is trying to secure a peace between their own nation, Wubei, and the opposing Yaart state. Huang, a Jiin-Wei, a secretive infiltration force that obey every command given by their superiors, is a key to manipulating the opposing side by his Duke. Peace teeters on a ledge that is commanded by the actions of both as they traverse the strained landscape between violence and cold negotiation.

G. R. Matthews’ debut novel, The Stone Road, is a fusion of martial-arts and magic that is cohesive and fluid. Matthews also has a solid command when it comes to the diplomatic elements of The Stone Road, so much so that it was engrossing to read. In fact, if the novel was purely focused on men sitting in a room discussing a treaty, I would happily devour that. The characters are vivid in these scenarios by their, at times, strained interactions to settle the conflict. Along with the political tension, key characters were proactive with how they attempted to control the flurry of events around them; ranging from refugee crisis to the actions of the Emperor. A good example of this factor is how the bickering between Zhou and Head Diplomat Hsin created the right amount of strain that kept the reading at a breakneck pace.

Where Matthews triumphs in his usage of political tension, he stumbles a little when it comes to developing character relationships that, at times, come-off as two-dimensional. For example, we’re only briefly told how one character shared a romance with another in the past and catch brief glimpses of their interactions throughout the rest of the novel. When the character’s intimate partner is threatened I wasn’t deeply affected emotionally because the relationship between the characters wasn’t fully developed. Though, this might be amended as I progress in the trilogy and grow more familiar with the cast of characters.

Granted, while some characters were flat and lifeless, others, such as Zhou, were vibrant. He starts-off as a character that you really want to hate: he is pompous and rude to those beneath him, such as soldiers and children. Even Head Diplomat Hsin shows little respect for him, is mildly annoyed by Zhou and constantly sending him out of the room during negotiations. We are shown why Hsin and those that interact with him despise him so in scenes that had me wanting to punch him:

The faces of women and children poked out from the entrances of some tents. They darted back under cover when they saw the soldiers and wagons. Zhou felt a tug on his leg and, looking down, saw a small child. So ragged and dirty was the urchin that it was impossible to guess whether it was a boy or a girl.

“Food, Master,” said the child. “Any food, Master, please.”

“Get away.” Zhou shook his leg clear and shoved the grubby child.

And as the story progressed so did Zhou as a character. He undergoes a humble transformation. I applaud Matthews on creating a character that you grew to love by the end of the novel.

Besides characters, Matthews does a fantastic job when it comes to writing a scene. These scenes are strikingly palpable and more than once was I mentally-clenching:

[Content Warning]

From the rafters, two small bodies hung, rope tight round their necks, blackened tongues swelling from their mouths and sightless eyes staring into the void. Below the bodies of the two children, a naked woman, bruised body and bloody face sat staring at him. Blood pooled from between her knees and it was clear to Huang what had happened to her, and to her young children. She screamed again and again. Her eyes were desperate and disbelieving. Her claw fingered hands tore at her cheeks again and again. Ragged lines of blood dripped down her face, tears of madness and grief.

[End Content Warning]

Action isn’t lacking either. The Stone Road has an abundance of it, from tight infiltrations, close-quarter skirmishes to exhilarating sword-fights. Matthews keeps the pace to the appropriate speed, which made me feel like I was right there in the midst of the action:

Grabbing the descending arm with one hand, Huang released his sword and reached for his own dagger. The assassin drove his other hand at Huang’s face and he was forced to give up on the dagger to defend himself. They rolled about on the floor. Huang bucked his hips trying to dislodge his attacker who was bearing down with all his weight. The dagger was still there, above his heart and the better position and great weight of the assassin was slowly edging it towards his heart. Huang could feel his arm weakening and he was breathing heavily. The cold eyes of the assassin bored into his, promising death.

The magical components weren’t too protuberant in these fights till later-on, and it only made me look forward to Matthews’ next installment with keen interest. When did magic make its appearance in a scene, it was primarily for manipulative purposes; such as determining the loyalty of a captured soldier, increase of one’s physical speed, to heightening of one’s eyesight (in the wake of physical repercussions), to the amplification of one’s hearing:

Huang dipped a finger into the wine and traced a small symbol on the wooden table. The writing flared briefly as he whispered a small chant and a tiny wisp of steam rose from the surface. Now he could hear every word that the soldiers were saying.

Also, magic comes in the form of scribbling characters on a scroll, wadding the paper-up, and tossing it into a room to explode. It is also of the spiritual aspect, beings capable of shape-shifting and traversing other realms that the physical body could not tread. There’re also ritual sacrifices. Magic is definitely reflective of its Asian aspect, but it never feels estranged or clunky, it remains natural to the setting.

While The Stone Road has some grammatical issues, they didn’t stop me from enjoying Matthews’ debut novel. From emotionally stirring scenes that flourished with dark and powerful action, to deep political intrigue, there wasn’t a dull moment throughout. I very much look forward to reading the next installment of the The Forbidden List, The Blue Mountain, and would recommend it to anyone that enjoys Asian-infused fantasy.

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3 Comments

  1. Richard Marpole says:

    Cool review, book sounds intriguing. Thanks for this!

  2. ScarletBea says:

    I’ve read it and it’s a great book. I also felt that books 2 and 3 in the series improved a lot, and eliminated some of the negative points you highlight in your review (for example in the characters’ development/relationships)

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