For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones (St. Martin’s)
The best thing about this book is the world-building, which the author has clearly put a great deal of care and thought into, at least for the central realm and its main characters. Especially in the beginning, it reminded me of Sherwood Smith’s wonderful Inda books with the sense of long-established institutions, complex relationships, and history. The opening sequence, with the discovery that a legendary sword is missing and a well-constructed forgery substituted in its place of honor, engaged me right away.
Gradually I became less enchanted with the story. Too many characters, especially the antagonists, did and said things that were ill-thought-out or downright incompetent. Denevan, who has risen to a position of power and authority as chief of the ultra-elite Alternen, has the emotional maturity of an adolescent, still nursing old petty jealousies. I much prefer villains on a more majestic scale, capable of greatness. Neither Denevan nor Mazakan, king of the invading Naor, fits the bill.
My favorite character was the brilliant, if somewhat distracted mage, Varama, who’s always a step ahead of everyone else but gets lost as other, less intelligent characters end up bashing their way through the violent climax. For me this was a major disappointment. Varama was akin to this world’s Sherlock Holmes, putting together otherwise-overlooked details to perceive patterns. I’m sure she would have come up with an elegant solution to Denevan’s power play and the invasion of the Naor. Speaking of the Naor, their only purpose in life seems to be to invade, pillage, and so forth, in order to make the central characters look noble. I never discerned any reason for their belligerence. In fact, it seemed at the opening that a mutually beneficial peace might lead to some interesting politics, jockeying for trade advantages and so forth. The only explanation seems to be because evil invaders (hint: “piles of skulls” = seriously nasty folks) are required for a big battle or three.
I wish the author had put as much thought into the causes of war and its creative resolution, and valuing science/intelligence over military prowess, as he did into the rest of the world-building. Such a rich world and array of characters might have served up a truly memorable story, but this one is only pretty good.