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.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Abendau's Legacy by Jo Zebedee

On the 4th of October, 11:39am, I received my ARC of Abendau's Legacy from Jo Zebedee. At 6pm the next day, I email her back to tell her I've finished it.

In that time I also slept for about 12 hours, prepared for, interviewed for and started an internship, walked a half hour around London to find KFC, and performed various other parts of life's miscellany. This was not an empty 30 hours. I finished the book stood on the London Overground, swaying slightly with my big old laptop resting in one hand.

I really liked this book. 

Of course, I was primed to. Abendau's Legacy is the last in a trilogy and having gotten along just dandy with books one and two, I opened up the file for book three with confidence. But getting someone to like your trilogy ender is easy. Getting them to love it is hard. Readers get their set ideas of how the characters should work and the author has to both work with them yet confound them. Expectations are sky high. One fluffed plot resolution can drag the whole thing down.

Every author has that moment where they think this is happening with their book
An example of this is that, despite being clearly utterly captivated, I'm still not quite sure whether I really like Abendau's Legacy or whether I loved it. This is a question that sets a ferociously high standard though as I've loved very few books this year. Suffice to say all fans of the trilogy should walk away satisfied; any new readers should go and pick up Abendau's Heir, knowing that the series is finished and finished well.

At its heart, Abendau's Legacy is about the main cast confronting all their failures of the previous two books and setting them right. It is not the hero's lap of honour; it is not their last desperate roll of the dice either. Kare, Sonly and Lichio all have their chances to walk away and deliberately decide not to do so. In doing so, they set the theme of the story. Every scene, every page can be read as a facet of the need to confront the mistakes of the past before people can move on. I don't know whether this is a deliberate choice by Zebedee or not. Regardless, it works. It gives the book real emotional heft and closure.

This is reinforced by the roles given to Kerra and Baelan, the two children introduced in Sunset over Abendau. They are placed front and centre with their older relatives and while the older characters correct their mistakes, the kids both struggle with the impact of that and make their own. It adds a nice contrast and another view of the human cost of these great epics so beloved of SFF. Its also quite unusual in that I'm really struggling to think of other books in the genre with main characters of such a range of ages, save A Song of Ice and Fire. Zebedee's desire to explore the human cost and willingness to make unconventional decisions in doing so remains one of her big strengths and selling points.

Fortunately, none of the characters have pets
Speaking of characters who take a step forwards, Lichio seems to go from major supporting actor to co-star. His motivations and actions receive more depth and he gets a bigger share of the emotional scenes. The result is a better book. I've made the criticism before that unrelieved grimdark is a bad thing (see the link up the page). Well, Lichio is the relief. He has a levity of spirit, even when undergoing pain, that keeps things from getting too intense. The comparison that springs to mind is the Wheel of Time; he is Mat to Kare's Rand. Not a joker, but the straight man when life is getting too dramatically overwrought. Jordan had plans for outrigger novels involving Mat and I think Lichio is just as good a target for a spin-off (hint hint).

So why am I unsure about whether I loved it?

Abendau's Legacy reads fast. Very fast. Hell, I've pointed out just how fast I've read it. And maybe, just maybe its too fast.

A lot of things happen in Abendau's Legacy and they happen in a relatively short amount of pages. Looking at the kindle files, this is comfortably the shortest of the trilogy. Usually things are the opposite and there's a reason for that. There are plenty of relationships that I wish could have been dealt with in more detail, such as that between Kerra and Baelan, and Lichio and Josef. And all of the other relationships in the book. Literally all of them (well, barring those involving the Empress). There's a few moments where I don't just wish I could have spent more time with the characters, but felt the plot needed to. There were important moments where it was a little jarring just how quickly they flew by. I've always viewed Zebedee's writing as being fast paced. Here, it is breakneck. She did actually tell me she worried about things going too slowly. That's a bit like Slayer being concerned that Raining Blood wasn't quick enough.

Artist's impression of Abendau Legacy's plot
Here's the rub though - would I have finished this book so fast if the story wasn't so taut? Every chapter raises new important questions about what happens next. There's something very moreish about that when done well, as it is here. 

I can guarantee that there will be someone - multiple someones, lots of them - who absolutely definitely fall in love with this book because of how fast it is. A few will have my reservations, only more so. This is a matter of taste after all.

And how will I feel about Abendau's Legacy six months down the line? Five years? After all, I'm not quite done making up my mind now and books, like all other forms of media, can grow on us or become old and pale. In the here and now though, I'm undecided whether I love it. Which means maybe I do. Which is, just so we're clear, a pretty big recommendation from me.

How big is pretty big? To approach this in a round the bushes way, I've noticed I often compare Zebedee to some pretty badass authors. There's two reasons for this:

  1. No one is going to read a writing blog where *everything* is explained by reference to Extreme Metal, collision sports, gastronomy and cat pictures. Some form of comparison to other writers is necessary. Breaks my heart but that's the truth. I'm trying though.
  2. They just flow outta the fingers.

They just do. She writes memorable characters and epic situations that stand with the big boys and girls, so its natural to compare her to them. Abendau's Legacy is her best example of this yet by some distance, and I say this without saying anything rude about Zebedee's other books. So pretty damn big.

Now there's a slight caveat to that. Character and situation are generally the most important things to me in a book. I'm in my glory here. People who demand deep immersive world building might not do so well with these books. Likewise readers who demand very complex stories. The book is good enough that I think such may well like it, but these are not the story's strengths.

Anyone who's looking for characters first though, could make a best new friend here. I can't recommend it strongly enough to those readers. I imagine most reading this will have the trilogy so far but those who have not, go and start at the beginning of the trilogy. It starts very well and it ends excellently. Hmm. Maybe I do love this book after all. Go and give yourself a chance to do so too.

Abendau's Legacy will be published on October 24th by Tickety Boo Press. It can be pre-ordered on or More information on Jo Zebedee's books can be found on her website. I would like to thank Jo and Tickety Boo Press for my Advanced Review Copy. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

How much can they take?

One of the reasons for the slight slip up in posting here has been the resumption of the rugby season. I'm not quite as addicted as when it would account for three gym sessions, three games watched, one game played and one training session very badly delivered a week, but it does fill up time.

My first game was a couple of weeks back now - late in the year due to a lot of cry offs on friendlies - and I went off injured. Nothing serious; just a thigh strain. I'd tried running around on it a bit but found that running wasn't really a good description for what happened. It implies speed. I had the speed of a 12 hour filibuster speech.

I wasn't the most spectacular injury that day mind. A friend of mine had his shoulder pop right out - lovely! It popped back in and then, after a break in play and some 'medical' treatment, he tried to keep on playing.

Let us be clear here. This is a completely amateur team, playing 2s fairly deep down the Kent merit tables. Literally nothing was on the line here other than a bit of pride and an enjoyable Saturday afternoon. And he, a mid-thirties guy with a desk job, decided that the obvious thing to do with a dislocated shoulder was keep playing rugby. There's lots of tales about professional sportsmen doing absurd things while heavily injured, but those are people in at the peak of athletic potential with huge amounts of motivation. Not slightly flabby blokes having a laugh with their mates. Of course, being the latter helps account for why he came off, but its still a bit ridiculous.

Ridiculous and its synonyms are words I often hear trotted out on forums when readers are discussing character actions. In SFF, we often write about big damn heroes, who go around doing big damn heroic things. They're right on the edge of human potential and sometimes a little beyond. Sometimes they're a lot beyond. People get surprisingly argumentative about what is physically possible and what is not. They get even more argumentative about what's in line with the previously established physical limits of a character.

And it gets yet worse when talking about the mental limits of a character. Part of what adds to reader discontentment here is that very often, people seek to conflate other people's mental limits with their own. 'I would have seen that trap, so why didn't she?' 'I wouldn't complain about that, so why is he whining?' 'She's smart, and I'm smart, ergo she definitely should have that trap!'

The obvious way of avoiding this sort of negative reaction is consistency. You'll never win over all the readers, but if your characters always react in the same way, then there's no inconsistency to complain of. There's many problems with this though. If a character always acts the same, how is he meant to grow? How do we prevent them from being boring? Perhaps most crucially, how do we prevent them from being unrealistic? Humans are by nature inconsistent. The same person who might struggle to to write one simple email without bursting into tears might the next day be a hero. An utterly fearless warrior can turn into a panicking wreck if forced to swim. Readers know this and accept this, until all of a sudden it doesn't fit their own personal parameters.

Ultimately, this is a blog post without an answer. Consistency is obviously still key, but we have to build consistency for lots and lots of little subroutines and that's pretty hard, particularly if you were planning to tell a story at some point. Part of its simply finding the readers who think like you and accept your logic for how characters work and what they can do. Everybody's heard the doctors talk about the likely effects of James Bond's described drinking habits. James Bond fans don't care. 

Nevertheless, its worth considering. Authors that don't fulfil reader expectations rarely achieve their goals. And human capability for well, anything, has a way of confounding reader expectations. One of my favourite stories related by an author is how Hollywood passed up on a script about a Colombian drug cartel trying to buy a Russian submarine because it was too unrealistic. I mean, this is Hollywood here. And, as some of you may know, this actually happened. No matter how many dragons and wizards we write about, passing off what occurs in reality as realistic will always be one of our biggest troubles.

p.s. A coda. The events described at the start took place in Game One. Game Two, I slam the back of my head very hard onto the ground. Not a concussion, but it still took me a long time to get up (more rain please Thor). Probably even longer to want to get up. I see out the rest of the game, somewhat against my better judgement. 

Game Three is today (in fact, I should be there as we speak) and I clearly did something right as I'm starting. Honesty compels me to admit I really don't want to be as I'm quite unfit at present (not that I'd ever be that honest if any of my rugby team read this). I have no idea how I'll cope. Maybe I'll go off blowing early. Maybe I'll somehow do eighty - after all, fitness isn't just the ability to do something without pain, its the ability to do something while accepting the pain.

Humans are very inconsistent. Perhaps that's why we're so much fun to write about.