City of King – Rob J. Hayes.
300 pages| Fantasy
The author contacted me and offered a free ebook copy of the novel in return for an honest review as part of the TBRindr programme.
The digest: an action-packed, visceral, enthralling stand-alone fantasy novel in Hayes’ shared universe. A must-read for fantasy fans – whether you are familiar with the author’s previous work or not. Expect a lot of blood and violence – elements of the barbarity of humanity condensed into the some of the best continuous 300 pages I have read this year. City of Kings is the first novel written by Hayes that I have read, and it will definitely not be the last. With a fleshed out cast of characters and an intense, grim plot, the author has created a great on-boarding point into his shared universe which does not disappoint.
This is the sixth book from Hayes concerning his main shared universe, and whilst new readers (like myself) lack a history with and knowledge of the characters present in this novel, at no point do we feel like we are missing crucial information. Core points are emphasised enough to set the ideas in our minds (but not enough as to bore us), and there is a marked difference between the attitudes of the main cast between the open and close of the novel. This development is clearly part of larger character arcs in some cases, but the transformation is not lost on new readers. Hayes does this by using multiple different points of view – the book following the most interesting parts of the battle whilst giving the reader time with different characters to become familiar with them. Of course, readers unfamiliar with Hayes’ work won’t get the true benefit of the development we see in the characters, but I am frankly astounded at how well we can understand them in such an action packed 300 pages.
Each character speaks and thinks a bit differently, both in terms of content and style. Whilst some only consider where the next drink is coming from, others focus on the wider reality of the war or how effective their military scheming might be. Unlike other books, these traits often conceal deeper levels of understanding – the alcoholic has reason to never be sober, the murderess has reasons to want to stop her killing. The book is grim and this is reflected in the private thoughts of those we follow – regret and grief are never too distant from the forefront of many of our characters’ minds, and due to the time we spend with each of them, we develop a meaningful relationship with each. In addition to these traits, Hayes ties up the group with personal relationships and histories I can only assume are explored in previous books. By adding a hint of a romance subplot, or the reliance our main protagonists Betrim and Rose have on each other, the impending birth of the future ruler of the lands, the author ensures that we can empathise with them. I can only be envious of how readers familiar with Hayes’ previous instalments feel with some of what goes on in this story, and how significant some of the events can impact their view of the characters.
The plot is excellently paced, with a mixture of longer and shorter chapters being used to emphasise the heightened emotions during the climactic scenes. To ensure that readers are familiar with both the characters and the contents of the plot, Hayes employs multiple points of view in City of Kings. In some books, multiple POV can be a negative as it can segment the overall narrative too much, but the flowing chronology here ensures that we always know where other characters are. More importantly, we always know when the characters are – if one hasn’t been focused on for a while you can be sure that sooner rather than later they will pop up to steal the show. Each character is consistently able to make us favour them during the chapter which focuses on them.
In terms of actual content, we follow a band of warriors who have risen from the state of outlaws and bandits (some of the most depraved there have ever been in the Wilds) to be on the brink of solidifying their empirical rule. At the beginning of the novel, we watch them begin an attack on the last bastion of the blooded – those of noble birth who have treated the common folk like dirt for generations – but the battle isn’t as straightforward as our protagonists would have liked. The plot is a lot more entertaining than I had predicted and involves different types of magic to keep things fresh – an interesting addition to a world which ultimately does not feel too distant from our own. The characters are a despicable bunch who have done terrible things, but I could not help but like them. They are all shattered people (whether they know this themselves or not), and this vulnerability reinforces the need for such a drastic plot to take place. We know from the outset their endeavour won’t end well, but we also perhaps underestimate how badly it will end.
The novel entertains the usual grimdark tropes and themes, simultaneously offering brutal violence and more thought-provoking internal struggles to promote a meaningful interaction between the characters and their actions in relation to the greater plan. In some stories certain parts of the grimdark ethos become overpowering and other literary aspects (such as the internal conflicts) suffer for it (whilst Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns & sequels are very good books, they don’t offer too much in true exploration for character depth in my opinions). People die brutally, the stakes are high, and humanity at its rawest is emphasised, but never did I feel uncomfortable with my reading experience.
The worldbuilding of the novel seems to be the perfect balance between introducing new readers to Hayes’ story world whilst not alienating those already familiar with it. There are nods to previous battles with demons (and other events) which I’d love to know more about, for example, but that Hayes couldn’t summarise as it would bore readers who had already read that tale. There is an acknowledgement of different races and religions, species, magic systems and such – all of which I want to know more about and so I’ll have to go back and read the previous five instalments in the series. The locations themselves are described in adequate detail – you won’t find pages devoted to the colour scheme of the army’s armour here, but if anything is important in the plot, Hayes’ writing should enable you to picture it with ease. A commendable effort, demonstrating the author’s ability to balance the need for detailing with the looming threat of death and desolation.
The prose is almost faultless, the writing style concise and to the point. There is no flowery language here and no extraneous paragraphs – Hayes has clearly put a massive amount of work into crafting this story and his efforts have not been wasted. If I were to nitpick, I would suggest that the phrase ‘and no doubt’ (and variations thereof) appears too often in the first half of the book and in the short story at the end of the novel. Seems like a bit of an editing mistake or perhaps it was meant as a defining phrase but either way, it did annoy me a little bit. That’s it though. A 300 page book with only one standout issue in its prose – impressive indeed.
So why the 4.5 rating instead of a full 5? To be honest I’m not sure whether the deduction comes from an actual problem in the novel or with my reading: I feel like there is a bit too much reliance on previous events to award a full 5/5. As I said earlier, I don’t think that new readers miss out on any core information, but there are just a few too many nods to previous wars, as well as dangerous magics, to fully satisfy me. Yes, a war with demon possessed soldiers sounds awesome, but if what happened then is so relevant now to the plot in City of Kings then perhaps a little summary of previous works would have helped? Mark Lawrence includes excellent summaries of previous books at the start of his newer novels (at least in some of the ones I have seen) and I think this novel would have benefitted from the same sort of thing. My advice is to read City of Kings to find out if the world is something you would be interested in, and then go back to his earlier works if you enjoy yourself. This is what I will be doing. 4.5/5 – an amazing book.