In his afterword, Kings of the Wyld author Nicholas Eames reveals the original concept behind his story: “What if mercenaries were the rock stars in a fantasy world?”
Which is an excellent idea, as far as it goes. But narrowing your focus to that catchy copy does a disservice to the book as a whole. Kings of the Wyld is that idea, yes. But it also manages to be a comedy, an adventure tale, a consideration on growing older, and a sendup of fantasy conventions, all at the same time. It also has heart.
In short: it rocks.
The heart comes in the form of our protagonist, Clay “Slowhand” Cooper, the moral center of the mercenary group known as the Kings of the Wyld. Or, well, “formerly known as,” because Clay is retired, working a boring job as a city guard. He’s married to the love of his life, and father to an insightful daughter.
The first hints that this is more than your average one-last-job grimdark tale can be found in a scene between Clay and his daughter, in which Clay realizes he needs to go back to what he does best in order to stay true to himself.
“But you would come if it was me, right, Daddy? If I was trapped by bad guys far away? You would come and save me?”
There was an ache in his chest, a seething rot that might have been shame, or sorrow, or sickening remorse, and was probably all three. He was thinking of Gabriel’s broken smile, the words his oldest friend had uttered before walking out.
You’re a good man, Clay Cooper.
It’s inevitable Clay would answer his old friend Gabriel’s call to get the band back together to tackle one more seemingly impossible task: rescuing Gabriel’s grown daughter from a city under siege. Accompanying Clay is his trusty shield, Blackheart, made from the wood of a sentient tree Clay killed. The first half of the book is a trip across the fantasy kingdom as Clay and Gabriel attempt to put their band, Saga, back together.
Not so easy, especially as Gabriel first must liberate his magic sword from his ex-wife and her new husband, a sleazy agent-type who makes his money booking “jobs” for mercenary bands—at exorbitant rates, of course. (Any resemblance to real life booking agents is entirely intentional, I’m sure.)
As Saga regroups, one of my favorite writing tropes comes into play: the found family. Gabriel wasn’t just the leader of the band, he was once Clay’s closest friend. Arcandius Moog was their mage, and is now obsessed with finding a cure for the “rot” that infects the wyld forest that stands between them and the rescue of Gabriel’s daughter. Ganelon was their muscle, a warrior so fierce that even Clay recoiled at his violence and anger. And Matrick Skulldrummer, who their Falstaff, has fallen on unexpectedly hard times after marrying a princess and becoming king. He almost steals the book.
The setting Eames builds around these characters made me wish this story existed in graphic novel form. There’s the Wyld Forest, teeming with treacherous inhabitants; and an amazing action sequence in a floating arena, where the group finally gets its mojo back; a pursuit via magical airship; a tense chase sequence across an ice bridge; and, of course, the inevitably epic finale. Did I mention the fight with the dragon? It isn’t really an epic fantasy until the dragon shows up.
Once the band has reunited, the book careens full-tilt into the rescue of Rose, trapped in a city of humans under siege by a countless army of creatures seeking revenge for the cruel abuse they received at the hands of their former human masters. The villain, the immortal Lastleaf, is a victim too, forced to take part in area battles as a form of entertainment, as has much of his army. (Not to mention his own horrific family story.) Yes, now they’ve gathered to slaughter as many humans as they can, without discrimination, but it’s hard not to feel for them a little.
It is likewise impossible not to root for Clay Cooper, whose shrugs hide deep emotion, who feels that, in many ways, he’s a worse monster than the ones he fights. That’s why he values friendship so much, and why he loves his wife so much: because they know who he is, and love him anyway. A less interesting novel might have focused on the intense, haunted Ganelon, especially since he’s at the center of a doomed romance; a less thoughtful one might have spent more time with the endlessly amusing Matrick; the frontman, golden Gabriel; or even Moog, still in mourning for his lost husband—all are side characters with the depth to support a book of their own. But Clay is the reader’s Sam Gangee, our Watson, and his point-of-view is what makes the book really jam.
I do have some quibbles. I wish there was room in the band for a woman. The women with speaking roles, with perhaps one lovely exception, tend to be a version of the faithful wife, the femme fatale, or the faithless witch (not literally). It’s not that the story treats women badly. It’s just not really about them. It is about the bonds of brotherhood, and I’m good with that in the end, especially since the sequel is called Bloody Rose, and is poised to tell us more about Gabriel’s daughter, an accomplished mercenary in her own right.
I finished this book in one night. If I could, I’d see the tour, and buy the t-shirt. Instead, I’ll have to content myself with waiting for the sequel, and reading it again.