Thomas Watson is a great example of why I needed to start this Arizona author project a lot sooner than I did. I've enjoyed both his company and his panels at quite a variety of conventions and I've picked up a stack of his books over that time. But I hadn't read any of them until now.
'The Gryphon Stone' is a recent novel compared to the others I have, as it was published in 2017, after each of the five volumes of his 'War of the Iteration' series, but it's also a standalone and so seemed like a better place to start. It also has a better cover, which is hardly a gimme but it never hurts. This one's an engaging cover that somehow hints at what might be inside without leaving us sure of anything, even the genre.
I have to admit to a sinking feeling when I opened the cover, because this falls for some of the more easily fixable problems of self-published or small press books. The proofing is bad enough that it failed on the table of contents and the text is left aligned instead of being justified the way the laws of nature require. However, I've been found myself in this spot before with an Arizona author (hello, Michael Bradley) who failed in putting a couple of books into print the way they should have been but succeeded nonetheless in telling excellent stories within them. So, let's move on.
I'm not sure how far I managed to get into 'The Gryphon Stone' before Watson hooked me, but it wasn't far. The first few chapters were good but a little work because he had a lot of worldbuilding to do and it overwhelmed the story somewhat. Not enough for me to leave, I should add, but enough for me to put the book down for the night and think about it before picking it up again the next evening.
I'll try to compress all that admirable detail for the sake of a brief synopsis. This is part of the autobiography of David K. Render, a formerly retired colonel in the U.N.M.S., the United Nations Multiverse Survey. He spent a great deal of quality time on an alternate Earth called Adrathea in partnership with Treyvar Olvanak of the Alvehn, but he has no wish to go back there ever again.
There are multiple reasons but one overrides all the others. He once met and fell in love with an Adrathean lady but the time slips that often creep in between the worlds made a simple trip home turn into a journey of generations, so that her heartbreak when he failed to return became literally a thing of legend, retold in a popular tragic ballad, an awkward concept for Render but a very cool one for us that I haven't encountered in any similarly-framed book.
But Treyvar comes to see him and ask him to go back anyway and he knows that he must. There's business undone and he has a part in it. Treyvar is a member of a very advanced civilisation, who are friends and partners to humans, but a side effect of their civility is that they're physically unable to kill another Alvehn and, indeed, Treyvar stopped David from killing a particular Alvehn in the past. And now, that same Alvehn, Edren by name, is wreaking havoc on Adrathea, usurping the throne from King Parick's descendants who lived and died over generations while David farmed for a few years in Williams, AZ.
We learn all this in only a few pages, while Watson also introduces us to the technology of navigating between the worlds, the reasons why Adrathea is perpetually stuck almost into an industrial revolution and a whole bunch of other background details. This is all cool but it's a lot to take in so quickly, especially as it's science fiction and we suddenly find ourselves in what feels like a fantasy novel after Trayvar and Render travel through a Stabilized Rip Station, to Adrathea.
At this point, the book felt decent and full of promise, but I'd taken maybe three nights to get half a dozen chapters in. Which is fine. But once I got just a little bit further in, I was unable to put this book down and I found myself finishing it at five in the morning because I didn't want to miss anything. Oh yes, it got that immersive.
It also got that emotional and I should build to the reasons why. I liked how the fantasy unfolded from the start. Those Adratheans who knew Render in the old days are all long dead, but I liked that he's recognisable as a figure of legend himself, not just from that tragic ballad but on his own merits. He fought hard and well for Adrathea and they have remembered him, as Daffyd the Outworlder.
I liked how they find a companion, Sidraytha Condor Voriss, a warrior from the Isles of Wulde. I liked how she and Render, as people not easily recognised, travel into the city of Morvain and attract trouble, learning plenty as they went. I liked how Render freed a gryphon from captivity on the road into town, because he's a hero and it was the right thing to do. I liked how Sid ends up with a magic sword at the university that she must be destined to receive. It's not really magic, of course, just Alvehn technology, but you get the picture. I liked a lot of things here and somewhere in there Watson hooked me.
What made me absolutely not put the book down was the way he worked emotion. Not too far into the book, Daffyd, Sid and Trayvar are on a train, travelling from somewhere to somewhere else in search of the lost prince of the realm, who's presumably alive but in hiding, working as muscle as they do so. And they're attacked. They fight and the boy who's been awkwardly pursuing Sid is killed while saving her life. And, excuse me while I collect myself, three weeks after reading this section, before I continue.
She goes berserker and shocks everyone in a piece of magnificent writing. Her religious beliefs have her mount a vigil in his honour, throughout the night. She does this out in the wilds, back to back with Daffyd and their swords between them. It remains silent up to dawn, at which point they get up to find the entire caravan sitting there silently in a gesture of respect. They've been there all night. I don't want to overplay this, because it isn't entirely surprising, but the majesty of Watson's writing in this section is palpable. It's been a while since an author has conjured tears from me like this.
And, what's more, the bugger did it again, later, in a scene I won't spoil but which I saw coming whole chapters earlier. I knew exactly what was going to go down, almost to the detail, and he got me again anyway. Sure, Watson can build worlds, craft characters and recount action as if he's been doing it for decades. He's a good writer in all those ways. But, when it comes to rooking us between the eyes with scenes of real emotion, he's as great as anyone I've read in a long, long time.
And, frankly, I ought to stop there because you really don't need to know any more. You don't need to know how well this merges the twin genres of science fiction and fantasy or how the copious amounts of intrigue and romance pans out. You don't even need to know about the gryphons and how they have long partnered with the Adratheans, using the Gryphon Stone of the title, that partnership damaged by Edren's shenanigans as the despotical Regent. It would all help to sell you on the book, but you don't need that.
Just trust me about the way Watson handles emotion. You've read plenty of my reviews, enough to know that I don't often indulge in hyperbole. But I'll do it here. I'm tearing up just remembering how these scenes went down and it's three weeks since I read this novel. That's enough of a recommendation right there. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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