The Stone Road is the first book of the epic fantasy series, The Forbidden List by G.R. Matthews.
This book introduces the readers to two ambitious young men who are our aspiring heroes and keep meeting each other at various circumstances before their fates merge together.
Two rival provinces Wubei and Yaart in a kingdom far far away at war. Peace talks have continued for a long time but diplomatic loopholes have stalled that until the current time.
Zhou is pushed by his influential father-in-law to join the diplomats in the peace talks on behalf of Wubei.
Haung is a young trainee freshly recruited into the legendary group of spies who infiltrated and watched every move of their own kingdoms and more. They are the Jiin-Wei; master swordsmen, magicians, and spies.
Both the young men show promise, though in different ways, pretty early in the book. Through the course of the narrative, they deal with greedy, shrewd, and manipulative superiors, loss or fear of loss of loving family, and horrors of war before they meet a mysterious new master.
We experience the chain of events through eyes of the two leads, Zhou and Haung’s. The chapters are well constructed with a smooth transition of POV.
The scenes are done with precision and care. A particular one where Huang finds a woman in the village they have just plundered is one of the most haunting and memorable ones. Did he do the right thing? I can’t say. I haven’t been there. But he decided he would rather accept the burden of guilt than let the young mother who has just lost her children suffer from further pain and suffering by becoming the spoils of war. Such is the strength in that man.
A tender scene where Huang finds out his wife is pregnant is so simple in emotion yet so touching.
Mr. Matthews has taken two central characters, Haung and Zhou, men from different backgrounds taking two different journeys and finally converging into an intersection. Will their life be connected in the future? Will they play a bigger role in the political drama directed by the mysterious Dragon Emperor? I have to read the next two books to be able to tell you. Why don’t you do that too?
The Stone Road doesn’t glorify Huang and Zhou. We see them suffer as much as any common people. Haung and Zhou’s daily struggle with the decisions they have to take or orders they have to follow show us that neither of them was born under a lucky star. Haung sees too much and Zhou suffers a great loss to reach the point where their fates merge.
The others like commanders, diplomats, a dragon emperor, all play their role perfectly. We understand the base nature driving the ones who let the war happen and appreciate the visible compassion of the lead characters even in such times.
The author uses predictability as a tool and crafts his story with emotions justifying each known course of action. And no, he doesn’t offer pages of explanation as that justification. He lets us see for ourselves. Take the example of Haung and Zhou’s scene at Hsin’s house. Read the book if you want to know what I mean.
We know a good man would do a similar thing given the opportunity but are we sure?
G.R. has studied the techniques of Chinese martial arts (see his bio), magic system, and mythology well enough to make us non-native ones who may or may not have a thing for Kung-fuey goodness believe in his world and people.
The characters are few and receive the complete focus of the writer.
G.R. Matthews has taken his inspiration from the land and lore of eastern Asia and created his own unique tale of fantasy. The charmingly western (‘mommy’,’bugger’) terms used in dialogs don’t really stand out in the tale that is built on a base of oriental names, places, and magic system.
The writing style is quite uniform. Some say the pace isn’t fast in the beginning but I appreciate the gentle start. The prolog giving us a taste of the unique magic system and the first few chapters introducing characters and places were necessary. In my opinion, once the war had started, the fast pace of narrative had no place for all that.
So, it was a good thing we knew which factions and provinces stood where. G.R.’s simple and beautiful prose helps us connect to the story. His strong visualization gives a life to the brutal post-war scenes. A fine example would be a man blinded by rage and lust for revenge imagines red snakes coming out of crossbows or slit throats while he can only see things in black and white as an after effect of the emotional trauma.
I believe we can expect an expanse of world building and character development in the other books. A heads up: I am reading the second book and already have some of my curiosities satisfied.
Geoff, please let me know if the reference above is incorrect.
Summary from the book
Zhou is a diplomat, on a mission to bring peace between his city and the city of Yaart. A mission that will, if successful, end the war that has lasted thirty years. But, not everyone on his team wants peace at any cost. There are scores to be settled that could jeopardize the treaty and plunge the two cities into another thirty years of bloody conflict.
Haung has no family but the army that raised him. Peace could prevent him from reaching the heights of glory he desires. But then comes an offer from an unexpected source and Huang must train to be a Jiin-Wei; a master swordsman, magician, and spy. He will find that life as a spy is a lot more complicated than that of a soldier, and his loyalties will be tested to the full.
Deception is a weapon that all sides wield with skill. Behind it all, an Emperor is readying the land for a war against a new enemy. One that he knows too little about.
For more details, you can read the Sunday Spotlight on G.R. Matthews announcement here.
This review kicks off the new Author’s Spotlight feature on my blog. I would love to know your thoughts on the author, his books, and today’s review.