The first time I heard about this book, it sounded intriguingly different from the usual fantasy settings, and when reviews started to appear from fellow bloggers whose judgement I trust, I knew I had to read Kings of the Wyld as soon as possible.
The deciding factor was a visit to the author’s site, where I saw a map of his imagined world: maps always fascinate me, and they help me visualize the place where the story unfolds. This particular map caught my attention because it looked similar in style to the ones you can find in many editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and when I discovered, in the text just below the image, how much the author loves the Professor’s work, I knew I was in the right place.
The story is a quite straightforward quest: Clay, Gabriel, Matrick, Moog and Ganelon were famous mercenaries whose band, Saga, reached unsurpassed heights of fame and glory. As the story starts, some twenty years after they split the band and went their separate ways, forging new lives for themselves, Clay Cooper seems to be the one who is better off: he has a wife and a young daughter and if his work on the city watch in the small village of Coverdale is neither glamorous nor exciting, Clay feels reasonably happy. The bubble is shattered by the arrival of his old friend Gabriel, seeking help: Gabe’s daughter, Rose, has embraced her father’s lifestyle and become a mercenary and is now in besieged Castia, where a host of creatures from the Wyld tries to break this last bastion of resistance against a monster invasion. Gabriel begs Clay to help him reconnect with the rest of the band and save his daughter: the plan seems hopeless, but a friend is a friend, and Clay decides to go with Gabriel, if nothing else for old times’ sake.
What starts at this point is an amazing romp through a bizarre land where strange creatures – some sentient, some… well, less so – share space with humans, who range from peaceful villagers to highwaymen (and women!) and adventurers. As Clay and Gabriel seek to hook up with the other members of Saga, we learn more about this world and, more important, about the past that the group of friends shared. And how I loved meeting each of the former band members! What I most appreciated in their creation is that the outward appearance, be it Matrick’s boisterous drunkenness, or Moog’s inventive absentmindedness, just to quote two examples, always hides some personal pain or tragedy, and shows how Saga’s back history is not just one of brave fights and epic adventures, but also one in which darkness has its place and left its mark.
This balance is mirrored in the whole narrative, where a fine vein of humor runs throughout the story, in a seamless blend that supports the equally balanced pace of the novel: humor is a difficult beast to handle, and there’s always the danger of it working against the story – either because it falls flat on its face, or because there is too much of it, and it stops being funny. Kings of the Wyld finds – and maintains throughout – the perfect formula, and that confers the novel the special quality that makes it such an enjoyable read.
The other lynchpin on which the story hinges is the relationship between the characters: there is a great deal of history binding these five men, not just shared glory and adventures, but also some betrayals and a few instances of petty behavior, and the beauty of it is that these men honestly acknowledge it all, and are able to move past it, because what really matters is the bond they created over the years, that same bond that compels Clay to leave home and family to save his friend’s daughter; or Ganelon to forgive his mates for abandoning him to his fate when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to be turned to stone as punishment. Saving Rose from Castia’s siege is the outward reason for recreating the band, but the one coming from inside is their sheer joy in being together again, reconnecting with their past as they reconnect with each other. And that’s a delightful thing to behold, indeed.
As the re-formed band of Saga moves toward Castia – with great difficulty, granted, given that they encounter many obstacles (some of them amusingly preposterous) – the readers discover places, peoples and bizarre creatures that speak of an amazingly inventive imagination: from friendly cannibals to deadly beasts, passing through an animated door knocker talking with a lisp (or course, since it’s holding the brass ring in its mouth…), the world Nicholas Eames created is one that’s full of wonders, dangers and fun, and this last comes up in the most unexpected moments and unlikely places, often offering delightful “easter eggs” for the discerning reader. As an example I’d like to quote a brief passage about a kobold (a sort of ratlike creature) that Saga meets at some point, and in particular about its lair:
“It was a kobold’s hovel, and that meant shithole.”
This call-back to The Hobbit is only one of the many enjoyable tongue-in-cheek references spread throughout the book (and I’m certain I missed a few!) and contributing to its overall mood, together with some wonderful characterizations that enrich the story with depth and feeling: among them I need to point out Jain and her Silk Arrows, a band of female robbers who manage to relieve Clay and Gabriel of their possessions not once, but twice, with an easy matter-of-factness that would make Robin Hood and his Merry Men hide in shame. Or bounty hunter and paid killer Larkspur, a dark lady indeed from head to toe to feather points, who proves to be an interesting – and surprising – antagonist for a good portion of the novel. Or again the ettin, the humanoid creature gifted with two heads who delivers an interesting counterpoint to the humor in the story: one of these weird twins is blind, and the other brightens his brother’s dark world with fictional descriptions of their surroundings that belie even the direst of circumstances, offsetting the merry-go-lucky adventures of the main characters with a deeply poignant element.
Kings of the Wyld is not just an amazing find, it’s a book that in turns entertains and makes you think, exploring in a deceptively offhand manner the meaning of relationships and the power of friendship. As the first volume of a trilogy it’s a great introduction to this world and also works as a stand-alone book, but one that leaves you wanting to know more about these characters and the background they move in. And as a debut work it’s an incredible discovery, because it looks like the endeavor of a much more seasoned writer: as such it deserves the highest of praises.