Having a story told by one of the protagonists from his prison cell must be this year’s thing. Marlon James does it in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Jenn Lyons does the same thing in The Ruin of Kings. Tracker, of course, is probably lying. It is what he does. We may have a better idea of the truth of the story when we hear the testimony of other members of his band. As for the prisoner in Lyons’ book, well…
Half of the story is told by Talon, a demonic mimic and eater of memories. Talon is the jailer, and she is able to describe events because she has eaten people who witnessed them. As for her prisoner, Kihrin, well, he is the Chosen One. Kihrin is the boy from the backstreets who discovers that he is secretly of royal birth. He is the boy about whom prophecies have been written. He is the Lawbreaker, the Thief of Souls, the boy who will one day wield the sword, Urthaeniel, known as Godslayer and the Ruin of Kings. Kihrin will one day destroy the world.
At least, that’s what the prophecies say.
It is a neat inversion of the traditional fantasy trope. As the strapline on the cover of my edition says, “What if you weren’t the Hero?”
There is a lot of hype around The Ruin of Kings. Tor describes it as, “The most anticipated fantasy debut of 2019.” They have a point.
I discovered this book when I saw Roz Kaveney tweet about how much she had enjoyed it. Roz is a very good judge of fantasy so I bought a copy. Within a few chapters I too was entranced.
There is a lot about The Ruin of Kings that is very traditional. It has kings and demons and prophecies. It has silly, Tolkienesque names. It has pirates and dragons and elf-like people and tentacled monsters. It has footnotes.
Wait, what? It has footnotes. The book is framed as a report by one Thurvishar D’Lorus to his Imperial ruler on the events of the past years, based mainly on magical recordings made by Talon while she and Kihrin were telling their stories. Thurvishar himself, as it turns out, was not an idle bystander in these proceedings. He’s not an idle bystander in the telling of the story either, because he has footnoted his report extensively. And he can be very sarcastic.
Let’s back up a little. Yes, there are dragons. But mainly there is a DRAGON. He’s known as The Old Man, and he’s the sort of dragon who makes Smaug seem like a winged gecko in comparison. The Old Man is to other dragons what Godzilla is to other iguanas. He’s what a dragon should be.
Did you notice that I mentioned “magical recordings”? That should tell you something. Yes, there is magic, but this is a sophisticated society we are talking about here. The magicians in The Ruin of Kings have thought about practical applications of their art. They can also be very clever in their use of spells.
There are some cunning magical artefacts as well. A major plot point revolves around something called The Stone of Shackles. If you are killed when wearing it, you are immediately reincarnated in the body of your murderer, who takes your place in the land of the dead. Because in this world souls do very much exist, and reincarnation is entirely possible. The Goddess of Death is real, and you can petition her.
One of the complications of this is that many of the characters in the story are not who they seem to be. It is bad enough that Talon can take on the shape of anyone she has eaten. Other people can also steal bodies, or be reincarnated in new ones, or in their old bodies but they have taken on new identities. There are times when The Ruin of Kings reads like a magical version of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.
There are plots within plots. Gods are involved in some of the plots. There are long term issues involving gods who might once have been human, magicians who want to become gods, and a terrifying demon who is eating… well, no, that’s a bit of a spoiler. But really, the world is going to come to an end. This is less the Anthropocene and more the Mageropocene. (That should probably be Thaumaprocene, but fewer people would have understood it, I suspect.)
The Ruin of Kings is a long book. Some utterly terrible things happen in it. It flags slightly in the middle while Lyons is showing us what an absolutely awful excuse for a human being Darzin D’Mon is. Depravity gets boring after a while. But things soon pick up and once again, dear reader, you are forced to question everything you thought was true about the book.
This is a very impressive and assured debut. And it has footnotes. Comedy footnotes.