Kings of The Wyld and Bloody Rose: The Band Series Rocks

Kings of The Wyld and Bloody Rose: The Band Series Rocks

On a whim I picked up Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld and loved it. I devoured the book in under a week and immediately dove into its sequel Bloody Rose. It’s a good book, on par with Kings of the Wyld, but different in some meaningful ways. What really makes Bloody Rose impressive though, is how it improves and complicates the world that Eames introduces in Kings of the Wyld. Two books in and Eames’s Band series is already a roadmap for any writer looking to make a one and done story into an entertaining series.

In Kings of the Wyld mercenaries in the style of D&D adventurers, right down to classes like warriors, thieves and wizards, gather in ‘bands’ that have a distinct rock and roll vibe to them. (Sidebar, fantasy needs a new sub-genre for stories that are purposely playing with D&D and video games tropes, I’m thinking RPG-Fantasy? Something catchier?) The merging of rock and roll with epic fantasy drives the lion’s-share of the world building. There’s arena shows, bookers that get mercenaries gigs, when mercenaries head into the dangerous Heartwyld to go adventuring it’s called ‘touring’. There’s a big festival called the ‘War Fair’ where bands get drunk and party; you get it.

The story focuses on Saga, the greatest band of all time. Saga broke up decades ago and Golden Gabe, the band’s ‘Front-man’, needs to get the band back together for one last tour. He has to save his daughter who is trapped on the other side of the dangerous Heartwyld in a city under siege by a horde of monsters. It’s a compelling plot and Eames runs with it, combining his aging adventures with aging rockers to create a hilarious, bad ass adventure.

But the adventure ends. Rose is saved, there’s some foreshadowing of greater threats, but everything is neatly taken care and honestly, how long can you really stretch the whole ‘D&D characters are rock stars thing?’ Saga is a fun crew, but they’re also old and have other responsibilities. Can you really force the band back together for two more books? Wouldn’t you lose what made the first one so special if Clay Cooper had to leave his family behind two more times to save the world?

Eames smartly decides to leave Clay and the rest of Saga home for the sequel. Instead he focuses on a new band, ‘Fable’, led by Gabe’s daughter Rose. And he makes the ‘bard’, a joke role in his first book, into the lead for his second. Fable’s prospective character is Tam, a seventeen-year-old girl and huge Fable fan. While Tam is likable and pragmatic like Clay Cooper, the perspective character in Eames’s first book, she’s coming from a very different place and that allows us to see Eames’s world in a different light.

But it’s not just Tam, Eames smooths out the rough edges of his world building in the second book. Mercenaries are still rock and rollers, there’s still arena fights and even groupies and tour followers. Fable still gets drunk, has crazy sex and does drugs. But the rock and roll stuff fits neater into the world this time, it feels less like a clever joke and more like a thing of consequence.

There’s a seedy underbelly to the arena shows and the treatment of ‘monsters’. Eames grazes this in his first book, but really explores it in his second. Fable’s booker is a monster, they stay the night at Tree Ent’s place, there’s a much more complex situation going on. Tam starts to see the mercenary bands she idolized in a different light. In this way Eames leaves behind the rock and roll stuff when it doesn’t suit the world building and makes the connections when it does. This gives Bloody Rose a less manic and more disciplined vibe.

That’s not to say the world isn’t still a blast, full of crazy, weirdos and funny situations. There’s a Shaman that accidentally turns into a bear cub, a satyr that eats everything like a goat, a guy living with monsters who ties an extra pair of felt arms to himself to blend in. Moog, the impish wizard from the first book, shows up again to delight. It’s fun, but the world feels more introspective.

Part of that is the crew. Fable is younger and more damaged than Saga. Don’t get me wrong, Saga had its problems and arcs. I also absolutely loved Clay and his bandmates. But they were more established, their issues played for jokes at time. Rose and her team are younger and there is an insecurity to them that feels real.

Eames is more interested in exploring these characters than his world, but that’s for the better. He does good character work and while there is a touch of cliché to everyone in both Fable and Saga, they both raise above their tropes and become so endearing it’s hard to let them go by the end.

And let them go you must. Eames has a three book deal, but he says that each book will focus on a different band. While I’m sad to see Tam and her friends depart, I can’t wait to see how Eames’s world will continues to evolve. I also have no doubt that I will grow to love his final band as much as I loved the first two. If you’re looking for a fun fantasy world that isn’t afraid to grow and question its own conceits, then check out Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

I recently finished The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang. The book’s first half was enjoyable, but it’s second half was frustrating. It encompassed a lot of the problems I see in fantasy novels. The world building was under-cooked, the pacing messy, the villains one dimensional and it’s grimdarkness unearned. Still, there’s something to be learned from it’s unevenness.

*****Spoilers for The Poppy War below******

The Poppy War is a pretty standard fantasy novel. It’s protagonist, Rin, starts off as an orphan and through a combination of hard work and a ferocious will becomes the vengeful avatar of a god. It’s a classic power story, complete with training montages and a special school. The school part is enjoyable and Rin is an interesting protagonist. She starts off normal enough, but shows hints of a power hungry side that threatens to overtake her.

However, once the title ‘Poppy War’ starts? (I’m actually not sure if it is a Poppy War, there were Poppy Wars in the past with the same enemy, but no one calls it anything other than ‘the war’ when it begins,) things quickly fall apart. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening, the reader has no sense of scale or the strategic value of any of the cities in play or even the bare geography of the Nikara Empire which Rin is fighting for.

Worse of all is the enemy Rin faces, the Mugen Federation. The Federation is bland and evil. They’re somehow more technically advanced than the Nikara, though we get no details at all about their equipment, fighting style or even their ideology and culture. Really, the only thing we know about them is that they will kill themselves for their emperor and think the Nikara aren’t even human. Oh, and they’re basically Japan.

This another problem with the Poppy War it leans way too hard on real history for its world building. Nikara is very obviously China, Mugen is very obviously Japan, there’s even a very obviously European faction with fair skin and tall ships across the ocean. R.F Kuang talked about how 20th century Chinese history influenced her and boy does it ever show. The opium wars is right there in the title and Kuang uses the details from the rape of Nanking when describing a massacre done by the Federation.

The mining of a real world tragedy to give a dark edge to the story and motivate the hero, didn’t sit right with me. It was so grotesque and hard to get through that it shocked me out of the story. I could dedicate a whole blog post to discussion of using details from a historical tragedy as fodder for your fantasy novel, but outside of it being in poor taste, it’s also not a great narrative device. Going grimdark doesn’t give your story weight, it can have the exact opposite effect, snapping suspension of disbelief. This is what makes tone and tonal consistency so important.

I never really recovered from the massacre and neither did the novel. The pacing became even more hectic and what world building there was frayed with inconsistencies and random betrayals. It all built to what was supposed to be an horrible act of genocide, the complete destruction of the Mugen Federation’s home island and everyone on it. But I didn’t care.

The Federation might as well have been orcs. There’s only one named Federation character and he’s a literal mad scientist, with a white lab coat and everything. (Doesn’t this book take place in medievalish times? Maybe? Another character treats a fucking crossbow like a machine gun, complete with a dull thud when it’s ‘out’.) The genocide fell flat. Mugen was never made to feel real. I didn’t care about it because the writer never did.

In many ways the Poppy War is a story that can’t live up to it’s ambition. It wants to talk about tragedy and sacrifice on a deep level, while also being an engaging action story. Achieving that tonal balance was always going to be difficult and the Poppy War’s bland, over the top antagonists and weak world building couldn’t sustain it. In some ways it asked both too much and too little of the reader. At the one hand we have to read through detailed rape and murder, on the other hand we don’t have to sacrifice anything when the hero burns a whole people away, because they were never described as people to begin with.

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

I’ve been listening to the audiobooks of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle recently. The books have something of a ‘geek cool’ rep to them. When they first came out everyone from my favorite webcomic to the dorm DM were gushing about them. And even close to ten years later I bump into people at writing groups, cons and parties that talk about The Kingkiller Chronicle the same way hipsters talk about obscure EPs.

Yet despite the rep and the fact that the book stars a fellow ginger, I simply couldn’t make it through the first one, The Name of the Wind. Even the audiobook with its excellent narration was painful, I would find myself shouting at Kvothe to ‘Get on with it already!’ (My favorite parts were when Kvothe, after doing this rambling, overly clever description, say something like ‘but I’ll spare you the details.’ I would always mutter ‘thanks? But why this time? You certainly didn’t spare them anywhere else!?). The Kingkiller Chronicle is supposed to be a story told over the course of three days, but honestly Kvothe is such a blowhard that it feels like it takes three months.

The Kingkiller Chronicle has a novel framing story. Chronicler, a famous scholar and scribe, hunts down the legendary figure of Kvothe who is in retirement and running an inn with his otherworldly apprentice Bast. Kvothe agrees to tell Chronicler his whole story and help separate what is legend from what is truth. From there the majority of the novels are in first person with Kvothe telling his story, with interludes in the ‘present’ at the Waystone Inn.

Kvothe can be a trying storyteller. He often feels like someone’s overly designed RPG character. He’s a master musician, wizard (though magic doesn’t exist in this world! Though it also totally does), swordsmen and thief. He’s smart, cunning, handsome. He’s a mythical figure that everyone knows about, with thousand of tales that have been repeated over and over again all around the civilized world…and he’s also like under thirty, maybe not even twenty-five.

I’ve always found instant, ultra-competent characters annoying, even more so when they are ultra-competent teenagers, which Kvothe is for the first two books. On top of that he’s melodramatic and tragic when we meet him in ‘the present’ at the Waystone Inn. And none of his tragedy or his skill feels earned when he’s introduced. We’re told Kvothe’s a tragic legendary hero, not shown it. But that’s fine, because Kvothe is going to tell us his story and the truth behind his amazing legacy that everyone can’t stop talking about, the one he even quotes in detail as he begins his tale….

Expect he doesn’t.

The Kingkiller Chronicle’s true sin is one of pacing and pay off. Every event in Kvothe’s life seems to require a hundred pages of in depth detail to get through, even when they’re not that interesting, like the time Kvothe wandered around a fucking woods for months just feeling sad. By the time the first book ends, Kvothe has maybe done one or two things of note and none of the things he specifically talks about when he begins his tale. The second book is more interesting, but it’s still stuffed to the brim with words.

I don’t know how many times Kvothe talks about going over to Eolian to play music, or how many cute but platonic interactions he has with his love interest Denna, or how many times he talks about longing to play the fucking lute, but there are just strenuous pages of this stuff that builds to almost nothing. As someone who has also wrote a five hundred page fantasy novel that I’m sure seems like it goes on forever (Find out more here!), I have a hard time begrudging Rothfuss some of these asides. And I will admit the more I listened, the more I enjoyed Kvothe’s story, mostly because interesting things started happening in the second book, but it is still overrun with chaff.

At the end of one of Kvothe’s episodes (the story is at times very episodic), Kvothe stumbles upon Felurian. Felurian is a Faye creature and is equal parts seductive and frightening. Kvothe ends up in a dual of sorts with her and tricks her in a very folklore- style way. It works, and it’s over pretty quickly and I thought Rothfuss was finally picking up the pace. But then Kvothe stays in the Faye with Felurian for what feels like forever. Pages are spent taking about how he learned to kiss from her and how they wandered around naked. It stretches and stretches, finally something interesting happens again, but rather than having that propel Kvothe to his next adventure he spends some more time with Felurian recovering from the event. Chaff like this swipes the momentum of the story out at the knees.

Rothfuss writing often feels more indulgent than engaging, as if he left too many darlings alive on the page. But even so, I’m listening. I will download the next book whenever it’s finally released. The novel is frustrating because it has potential, not because it’s bad. Kvothe can be clever, some of the details of his world interesting. But Kvoethe should have learned more from those quiet Adem mercenaries than just fighting. As his friend Tempi said, ‘one word can say more than many’.