Because all of life is stories.
There’s something to be said about books that don’t take themselves overly seriously. I love sweeping epics that tackle big questions and present me with a sprawling array of stunning concepts. I love to sink my teeth into doorstopper sized hard sci-fi and Sandersonian epic works of fantasy. But nothing says you can’t have a ridiculous amount of fun and potentially stupid occurrences on the road to those big questions and stunning concepts.
Nicholas Eames and his high fantasy meets the Blues Brothers mashup Kings of the Wyld seem to agree with me.
Yes, you read that right.
Kings of the Wyld imagines a fantasy world in which mercenary bands are worshipped like the rock gods of yore. They tour the Heartwyld, a dark and deadly forest filled with all sorts of terrible, people shredding monstrosities. They are the elite, the best of the best, and they are celebrated for it. The most elite of this group is Saga, a band whose fame stretched the world over. But that was many, many, many years ago.
Fast forward twenty years to present day and Saga has long since disbanded, it’s members moved on into retirement. Clay “Slowhand” Cooper is a member of the town watch in an out of the way hamlet, he has a wife, a daughter, dreams of opening an inn. It’s a quiet life. Until his old pal and bandmate Gabriel appears at his door, begging help to save the life of his daughter, and with a mission that is most certainly glorious, suicidal, and stupid.
Eames weaves together an incredibly fun story that never manages to take itself all that seriously, while still touching all the right emotional notes to keep us invested in the fates of these lovable and highly competent morons. Once Clay is onboard with Gabriel’s mad scheme, the rest of the band begin to fall in line. It goes a little something like this:
It would be just like old times, except that Moog was dying of an incurable ailment, Mattrick was hideously out of shape, Gabriel—their proud and fearless leader—had gone meek as a newborn kitten, and Clay wanted nothing more than to go home, hug his wife, and tell his darling daughter stories of grand exploits that were all, thankfully, far behind him.
Ganelon, at least, would be virtually unchanged, as hale and healthy as the day the Sultana’s magi had turned him to stone nearly twenty years before.
From this point on we meet vengeful queens, angry rabbit gods, harpy assassins, a surprisingly industrious band of roadside bandits, airship captains, and thousands upon thousands of angry, frothing monsters. This debut shines in keeping the balance between quiet moments and huge set pieces smooth and flowing, letting us linger in the more intimate character driven scenes but knowing when to beat a bunch of angry goblins to a glorious and hazy red mist.
It’s such a wonderful and realized world as well. Grandual is a living and breathing kingdom with a history, a people, secrets. Not all humans are to be trusted, and not all monsters are to be casually categorized as fodder. There’s so much to explore. So much to learn. Every path feels well worn and traveled. The grizzled vets of the merc lifestyle all seem to have earned their reputation and their scars. I can’t wait to find my way back into Grandual and learn more about the empires that have risen and fallen and shaped the destiny of the land that Clay Cooper calls home.
I mentioned the Blues Brothers earlier and the resemblance doesn’t stop at famous reuniting bands. From opining the young up and comers who don’t really know what it means to be a band, to not understanding the fans who watch bands fight captured beasts in stadiums (“They wanna see their favorites live!”) Saga plays through all the great tropes, right up to dealing with a bunch of unruly characters who will stop at nothing to see their tour brought short. And for the music lover, there are plenty of easter eggs, some obvious and some less so, paying tribute to the real rock legends of our time, from Eric Clapton to Pink Floyd. I’m sure I still haven’t found them all.
For all the fun we do still see a book with its share of heart-rending moments. Not all of Saga has had as quiet or happy a retirement as Coop. Even characters that would be traditionally labelled as monsters will pull on your heartstrings. We’re guided through memories of betrayal and judgement, forgiveness, longing, and a thousand small wounds that mar, but do not destroy a friendship built to last a lifetime of danger. We grow to care so much about these men who once fought for glory, but now do so for each other, and for what is right.
There were moments where I cheered, moments where I laughed, or held my bated breath as the book took that roller coaster-like lurch over the hill into a giant set piece battle or brawl. I love these characters, their camaraderie, their sense of duty, their love for one another. I love that I haven’t had this much fun reading in a long, long time. I’m thrilled to hear that the world is one we’ll return to, even if it means following a different band.
You will want this debut. Very. Very. Much. Long live the Kings of the Wyld.