Release Date: February 5th, 2019
Publisher: Tor Books
Page Count: 560
Series: THE CHORUS OF DRAGONS, Book 1
Rating: 4/5 Stars – Really Liked It!
Note: I received an ARC from the publisher at San Diego Comic Con. It has not affected my review in any way.
THE RUIN OF KINGS is a high fantasy that manages to be personal and sprawling at the same time. It follow the saga of Kihrin, street thief turned lost-heir of a Royal Household, as he navigates a web of intrigue and prophecies that will kill him if he’s not careful. It’s a journey of personal stakes, but told in such a grand way that it feels like a epic of kingdom-sized proportions. Our attachment to Kihrin is what pulls us forward, and perhaps allows us to overlook some of the flimsier parts of the world-building.
The successful creation of this epic feeling is in part attributed to the fascinating layering of timelines. The story is told by multiple narrators, each telling a different part of the tale. At the upper level is what you might call the chronicler of events, the person who is “compiling” these different narrations together, adding their own annotations to clarify terminology, add other rumors about what really happened, or insert their opinion. The bulk of the story follows Kihrin at two points in his life: the first, when he arrives on slave docks to be sold, the second, an earlier time in his life when he accidentally witnessed a murder. The chapters alternate between these timelines until they meet up for one last breathless finale.
The beauty of these layers is that they do not (for the most part) confuse, but enhance the overall pacing and tension. When Kihrin in the later storyline mentions an event from his past, the reader starts to anticipate it happening in the earlier narrative, watching for the triggers that will cause things to happen. And as the story progresses, one’s understanding of the significance of people or events shifts as details are revealed and events unfold. I found myself going back and re-reading early passages in the book in a new light, having a fuller understanding of the characters and mythology in play.
THE RUIN OF KINGS starts out with its best foot forward; as mentioned before, the two dueling storylines involve a murder and our hero’s enslavement. The immediate drive to see how these events connect is strong, and the first couple hundred pages are a compelling read. There’s dynamic action, thrilling chases, and a few heart-wrenching moments as you realize how certain events inevitably have to play out. It doesn’t hurt at all that Kihrin is a wry narrator with a rebellious streak. A bit selfish at times, but in the teen “I know better than the adults” kind of way. Most of the time, Kihrin is struggling to stay afloat in a game of politics he barely understands, and his wit both aids and hinders him as he sometimes pokes the bear once too often.
Unfortunately, the pace of the story slows in the middle for some heavy exposition dump. The plot moves forward, but at a fraction of the speed, as necessary mythology is teased out at a maddeningly slow pace. This mythology, or rather, the list of characters that make it up, is going to be a make-or-break for many people. If you like your epic fantasy with family trees so intricate you need a flow chart to keep track of who is (or might possibly be) related to who, then have I got a book for you! Personally, I found the dense list of names a bit of a struggle to keep track of, especially as some characters go by monikers such as Dead Man until Kihrin learns their real names (names we might have already seen without drawing the connection). If it wasn’t complicated enough, this world contains a rare form of magic that can swap souls between bodies, just to keep you on your toes.
While the author does an excellent job of grounding the personal stakes for the main characters, they were less successful in making me feel connected to the stakes for the world as a whole. This isn’t a book that handholds you through the world-building, but literally treats you as if you have lived in this land your whole life, and understand the politics and history at play. That works well when you are only concerned about the human country of Quur, but the politics of the vané race are touched on only tangentially and briefly, mostly to add to the already extensive lineage of the characters. There is a revelation connected to the vané at the very end of the novel that is lacking in punch, as it wasn’t clear to me what exactly the implications were for that race, and how it connected to Kihrin. In an otherwise satisfying ending, this was a bit of a bump.
The bright side, however, is that THE RUIN OF KINGS does deliver an excellent finale. All the story threads come together in a race to the finish, and the payoff is well worth it. This is a tale with a definitive end, but also with some game-changing developments that will drastically alter the world. There were a few elements that felt a bit shoe-horned in to set up storypoints for the next book in the series, but overall I found myself once again racing through the pages.
In short, this is an impressive debut, albeit one that could have used some streamlining. The strength of Kihrin as a character really brings the tale together and without him, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the book nearly as much. Despite some missteps in the world-building, I am definitely curious to see how things play out in future installments and would recommend this read to fans of epic fantasy.