Seven Kings by John R Fultz
Well here I am, mildly surprised at myself for requesting a review copy of Seven Kings by John R Fultz (Orbit, 2013) Books of the Shaper II. To say that I was underwhelmed by the first would be one of my better examples of understatement. It was poorly put together, limiting the pace of the narrative and leaving many elements in the plot confusing or unexplained. Yet, on a whim, I’m back in this High Fantasy (note the use of capitals) world. This author is going for the maximum effect in Sword and Sorcery Epic Fantasy with frequent forays into somewhat poetic metaphors and similes, just in case we’ve forgotten how relatively quiet and unadorned the prose of the old guard writers like Clark Ashton Smith used to be.
In the blink of an eye, we’ve moved eight years beyond the events described in the first volume. Although I could vaguely remember where everyone had ended up, I confess to have been shaky on everyone’s names and their relationships. This time around, it still has all these eminently forgettable names, but there’s slightly greater attention to making these characters somewhat more memorable. After a while, I could remember who all the major characters are, which was a major step forward. Indeed, though that’s obviously not the intention, it would be possible to read this as a standalone which, for an old guy like me with a failing memory, is a big plus. However, as with the first, this has a major cast of characters and you just have to see most of them as the redshirts, expendable as the author requires. And, with much gore, a significant number of these characters are variously dismembered and slaughtered as we work our way through the plot. Although I had no problem with the content, people of a more sensitive disposition may find this literally too bloodthirsty as our quasi-vampires feast on the blood of their slaves in their jungle retreat.
So who features this time around? We start off with Tong, a slave escaping from the evil kingdom of Khyrei into the jungle where he’s rescued by the Sydathians. This new race is a kind of borrowing from both H G Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs who had ferocious ape-like creatures which respectively lived underground or, as the White Apes, in the deserted cities of Barsoom. Vireon continues as King of the Giants, with his sister Sharadza married to a reconstituted D’zan, while the divided throne of the Stormlands, is threatened by drought because the magic no longer brings the rains. Conceptually, the relationship between the brothers Lyrilan and Tyro, sons of Dairon, is the most interesting. In theory, this is a literal division of rulership between the brain and raw instinct. Lyrilan is bookish and cerebral. Tyro is the warrior quick to anger and always looking for a fight. Against the perceived threat from Khyrei, this is a recipe for inaction since the caution of Lyrilan will delay joining battle. That they are, in real terms, already outgunned in magical terms, is neither here nor there. Delay on the part of this kingdom merely gives the enemy time to grow stronger. Whether immediately or in time, the victory of Khyrei is assured. Unless. . . There always has to be an unless, doesn’t there. Writers of High Fantasy are not prone to allowing the forces of darkness to prevail. Heroes must arise. Battles must be fought. Victories must be won for the side of light.
I suppose the best way to describe the mechanism of High Fantasy is to see it as a series of cycling binaries. At the highest levels, there must be a perpetual movement through life, to death and rebirth. Sorcerers usually have a way to manipulate this process to achieve practical immortality. Each new generation of mortals plans for the future with the birth of children to take over the running of the world when the parents die. Through oral histories and the work of librarians, knowledge is passed down through the ages and the slow accumulation of wisdom leads to better lives in the short term. But there are always prices to be paid for each advance. The other mechanisms at work are a cycle from success to tragedy, paralleled by a cycle from despair to hope. Without hope, we would never recover from the tragedies. There would be no will to learn from losses and to prepare against the repetition of the same losses. In theory, each time we lose, we can return stronger if we wish it. So books like this test the mettle of our protagonists. How strong is their desire to prevail when it’s so easy to wallow in self-pity, the humiliation of defeat, and the fear of further losses? As applied to civilisations, it’s rebirth, ruination and reinvention as we stagger blindly through time. After each civilisation’s fall, there are dark ages followed by slow renaissances. Only when recorded history can survive the dark interludes can each new civilisation climb higher on the shoulders of the past.
So I’m moving not unhappily through this volume until, about four-fifths of the way through, I’m suddenly reminded this is the second volume of a trilogy. What reminds me? Well, in plotting terms, everything screeches to a halt and, instead of the plane landing at the airport, it goes into a holding pattern. All of which mixed metaphors should tell you that the only thing really achieved in this book is the identification of the real threat this part of the world faces. We now have to wait until December when the concluding volume is due to be released. This leaves me with the sense of hopes dashed. Seven Kings seemed so much better than Seven Princes yet it turns out to be a damp squib — a British simile referring to the habit of fireworks to fizzle miserably if they get wet, i.e. you get all the anticipation of a massive bang followed by incandescent sparks and flying blobs of bright colours, but all you get is a faint pop.
For a review of the first in the series, see Seven Princes.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.