Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Review: 'The Ruin of Kings' by Jenn Lyons

Fantasy was my bread and butter for much of my childhood. Nothing was quite as exciting as discovering new worlds and joining exciting heroes on their adventures. Although I did broaden my reading out a bit since then, Fantasy has always remained a staple and I keep returning to it time and time again, looking for authors that craft something new within the genre's conventions. My latest Fantasy read was The Ruin of Kings and I think I'm still making up my mind about it. Thanks to Pan Macmillan, Tor and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 07/2/2019
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, Tor
What if you weren't the hero? 
As a bard’s apprentice, Kihrin grew up with tales of legendary deeds. He also steals, desperate to buy a way out of Quur’s slums. Then he raids the wrong house, he’s marked by a demon and life will never be the same again. 
Kihrin’s plight brings him to the attention of royalty, who claim him as the lost son of their immoral prince. But far from living the dream, Kihrin’s at the mercy of his new family’s ruthless ambitions. However, escaping his jewelled cage just makes matters worse. Kihrin is horrified to learn he’s at the centre of an ancient prophecy. And every side – from gods and demons to dragons and mages – want him as their pawn. 
Those old stories lied about many things too, especially the myth that the hero always wins. Then again, maybe Kihrin isn’t the hero, for he’s not destined to save the empire. He’s destined to destroy it. 
The Ruin of Kings is the first book in Jenn Lyons's incredible Godslayer Cycle.
Like most other genres, Fantasy has a lot of conventions that kind of need to be followed to let it qualify. A big part of that is the Hero's Journey, a concept coined by Joseph Campbell but existent for thousands of years. A young hero sets off on an adventure and encounters a magical guide. They face trials and challenges and undergo some kind of death and rebirth, whether that is physical or mental. In the end they return wiser, having learnt from their travels and having conquered their enemies. This pattern is immediately recognizable and brings to mind countless of stories and characters and is also the reason why Fantasy and YA fit together so well as genres. The best Fantasy novels take this journey and transplant it somewhere completely new. I have loved some of the recent Fantasy novels that moved away from the stereotypical Tolkien-esque setting and rather reinvigorated the genre by bringing in their own cultural backgrounds. I'm thinking specifically of Children of  Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi and The Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean. The world created in The Ruin of Kings isn't quite as refreshing or new as those, but Lyons does create something very interesting with her world building. And I do mean interesting in both its positive and negative connotations, because although The Ruin of Kings gripped me, it did so in part because it felt slightly messy.

For parts of this book I was utterly confused. Part of that, if not most of it, is down to the book's narrative structure. We start in the present, where Kihrin is telling his story in first person, but he is not telling us his story from the very beginning. He is telling Talon, a demon, who then tells the initial part of Kihrin's story, leading up to where he began, in the third person. The novel flicks back and forth between these two narrators chapter by chapter. And finally, all of this is has been transcribed by a third character, who adds footnotes whenever they think anything needs clarifying or a sassy comment is required. I am confusion! Now, I adore complex structures. I wrote whole essays just on structure while I was at university. A complex structure, however, has to have a purpose aside from just being different or unusual. In the case of The Ruin of Kings it often leads to a lack of clarity rather than adding to the meaning or message of the novel. Throughout the novel, and especially in the blurb, Lyons hints at wanting to tell a story of someone who is neither hero or villain or perhaps both. I assume this is what the split narration is meant to work towards as well. This gets almost completely lost though since the structure means you get attached to Kihrin in a kind of distanced way while the moral gets lost.

We follow Kihrin's story from two different points of view, technically, but Talon is a shape shifter who has taken other people's memories, so her narrative is really the point of view of countless of characters. Together they tell the reader what has happened to Kihrin so far, how he has come to be where he is now. This journey of his spans years, as far as I could gather. How many I don't know. Some years apparently pass within a single sentence while some days are stretched out across chapters. Similarly there are a lot of supporting characters, many of whom were once someone else or at the very least aren't what they appear to be. What this means is that The Ruin of Kings is a fascinating read with some amazing world building, stunning imagery and interesting character building, while simultaneously being confusing for its readers. At almost 600 pages, I think that The Ruin of Kings could have done with some more thorough editing to prevent overloading the reader with too much information they can't place yet. There is so much going on in this novel that now, as I'm writing this review, I keep remembering things that happened, plot lines that were fun but seem irrelevant to the main story. While Lyons tries to address topics such as free will and slavery, the few instances where these are highlighted are washed away by a kind of sensationalist violence akin to Game of Thrones. There is a lot of murder, love, slavery, backstabbing, politicking, incest, etc. and it's all very exciting. Where the heart of The Ruin of Kings lies, however, what it is that the novel is supposed to really care about, is unclear.

In the paragraphs above I have tried to give as clear an overview of why The Ruin of Kings was a confusing read for me. I absolutely loved a lot of what Jenn Lyons did in this novel. There is a clear historicity to the text, it is steeped in references to emperors and kings, to deities and battles, intrigue and lawmaking. It reminded me of the Nevernight books, in that it felt like there was much more, that we were only scratching the surfaces of this world. Unfortunately Lyons does overwhelm her readers with much of the world building. Not a single page is read without a reference being made to something the reader will only understand fifty pages later. As the first book in a series, you'd think that Lyons would leave some of the world building to future books and focus on strongly establishing her main characters in this first book. Instead now I have a lot of information about Kihrin and his companions, not all of which I can place. The Ruin of Kings is like an incomplete puzzle. Pieces fit together here or there, but I feel like the overall picture is crooked. I'm not a big fan of books, or films for that matter, that serve only as a set-up for future books, and it does feel as if The Ruin of Kings is mainly there to make sure everything is set up and kind explained for the next book in the A Chorus of Dragons series called The Name of All Things, expected later this year. Don't get me wrong, I will most definitely want to read The Name of All Things because I'm fascinated by this world Lyons has created, but I have high hopes she will restrain herself a little bit with the flourishes and focus on telling a clearer story.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I loved reading The Ruin of Kings but it was a bit of a problematic love. There is an overabundance of style and showiness to this novel that will make it a confusing and potentially frustrating read for many. There is also a lot of promise and excitement in Lyons' novel that mostly makes up for it. I'd recommend this to readers looking for a fast-paced and expansive new fantasy series to get stuck into.

No comments:

Post a Comment