Thursday, November 30, 2017

REVIEW: THE KING'S JUSTICE

Two tales of magic and mystery...


INTRODUCTION 
THE KING'S JUSTICE intrigued me because it is actually a collection of two novellas. Length-wise it comes out to about the same number of pages as a shorter novel so it's still a pretty good value proposition. I was pleased to find that while both THE KING'S JUSTICE and THE AUGER'S GAMBIT have similar tones and themes, they play out in very different narrative structures and feature two distinctly separate leads.

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 While not mind-blowing or even terribly deep, it was easy to appreciate the creativity in the characters and story as well as the consistency and coherence in each episode's respective magic systems. 

Broken down are my thoughts for each of the novellas:


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THE KING'S JUSTICE

CHARACTERS
This novella stars a man who goes by the name of Black. His dark and moody moniker is matched by his mysterious behavior and sometimes dour attitude. Initially, I found him to be a little disappointing - a little too much like every other bad-ass who's seen the darkest corners of the world and still chooses to defend it. Over time though, Black starts to be revealed as someone who's much more interesting. There's a lot about him that is divulged over time, though to discuss some of his finer points might be diving into spoilers. What readers will discover quite early on is that Black has some intriguing supernatural abilities thanks to the fact that his body is "shaped." The details of what this means are not immediately revealed, but during Black's first encounter, it is disclosed that Black has the ability to influence those around him while he himself is compelled by what he calls his purpose which as it turns out is more than your average hero's desire to complete a quest. The story also makes great use of the small army of minor characters like a little girl gifted with healing magic, priests of darkness and light, and a man who mourns the murder of his boy. Black interacts with them like Sherlock Holmes questioning people with ties to a crime. The interactions are all pretty entertaining thanks to how distinct each character is, but there's also a disappointing lack of any meaningful relationship building. 

WORLD/SETTING 
The bulk of this story takes place in a small town recently disturbed by the violent murder of a young boy. There's an air of darkness and dread that hangs over everything and I pictured every scene as happening either at night or under the veil of a canopy of storm clouds. In spite of this dreary mood, the locations are actually fairly interesting with the climax taking place in a somewhat surprisingly exotic location. The story also does a nice job of making this town feel connected to the world around it. Some of this is done through expositional tidbits Black shares with the reader and the rest is accomplished by him both coming from another location and venturing off to places set around the town proper. It's all quite well done and makes exceptional use of the compressed fantasy real estate. A layer that I won't spoil too much is he fascinating spirituality that surrounds everything which is based of four key elements in the world. Finding out how those connect everything that goes on in the story was a real treat that I felt set this story apart from those that have followed a similar detective-style formula.

PLOT/TONE 
The overall plot of this narrative is far more compelling than your typical dark and dreary fantasy tale. There's a lot going on here, but it all comes in manageable doses. There's decent world building though the story achieves this through focusing on one small region of it. There's a simple, but nuanced magic system that was a lot of fun to learn about as well as a compelling spiritual component as well that while not immediately clear to the reader, is also not horribly convoluted. The writing is well done and the characters are all serviceable as well as distinct. Like I mentioned before, there is a lack of any real relationship building between the story's key players. Interactions are all interesting and vital to advancing the plot, but there is a bit of "chess piece storytelling" going on here that may bother some. I happen to enjoy that kind of thing when it's well done and I felt like it was executed pretty well here though I did long for some deeper exchanges. It should also be noted that the author has a very proper sort of style. I really loved it, I even learned a couple new words from his writing. It's not Old English, but it is a bit more sophisticated than most books in the fantasy genre when it comes to word use and elongated sentence structure (think more LORD OF THE RINGS than A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE). That's not to say it's better or worse writing than other fantasy novels, there's just a noticeable stylistic difference here. One thing that threw me off personally is that the author likes to split up dialog into multiple paragraphs. While I'm pretty sure this is actually a more grammatically correct approach, I did find myself constantly trying to figure out if the dialog was switching over to another character or if the initial speaker was simply continuing their lines as part of a separate thought. Another thing that will be hit or miss with some people is that the story of the world is unveiled bit by bit. The upside to this is that there is no exposition dump to forget promptly after reading it. Backstory is provided at the exact time that it's relevant which makes it feel far more important to current events. The downside is that you're pretty much getting exposition droplets all the way through the story. 


THE AUGER'S GAMBIT

CHARACTERS
The cast of this novella is a bit tighter in some ways and that's largely for the better. The story still follows a lead character. This time he's a Heironomer instead of a mysterious warrior.  I found this to be a very fun switch. Basically the main character (who does have a name, but since it's withheld for a while it feels like a spoiler to reveal it here) divines the future from the guts of small animals that he kills and pulls apart. He's an odd duck for sure, but an surprisingly sympathetic one due mainly to how earnest of a person he is and how loyal he is to the people he serves. He serves a noble, though sometimes cruel, queen who is a paragon of royal composure, beauty, and grace, as well as her daughter, the "plain" princess. There's also Slew, the royal assassin/executioner/brute/enforcer and Veil, a loyal bodyguard. Although they are not as defined or as colorful as the queen and her daughter, they are still good fun. This core group felt a lot tighter-knit than the cast of THE KING'S JUSTICE and the way their relationships to the main character develop definitely felt more fulfilling than Black's interactions with his supporting cast. This greater focus on the core did detract from my ability (or maybe desire) to keep track of the other side characters, mainly when it came to the five barons. I think part of it was that they have weird names that are hard to remember, but I also just didn't really find them interesting as individuals even though they have definitive characteristics. 

WORLD/SETTING 
There is a darkness that looms over this world, but it is different than how the world of THE KING'S JUSTICE comes off. Whereas that novella is set in location that is already dark and dreary, THE AUGER'S GAMBIT takes place in a land of peace and material excess. The darkness comes in the form of a future that is marked by doom of an unclear variety. The Auger's workshop is literally dimly lit and the finale of the story does happen to be held under the shadow of a violent storm, but for the most part, this is a far brighter and warmer world. This makes the threat of it's demise all the more unsettling and the narrative does a good job of building up the tension that it's characters feel as they do all they can to prevent their country's destruction.

PLOT/TONE 
This novella is no less mysterious or magical than the first. The main difference is that much of the mystery comes from court intrigue and vague prophesies of a tragic future. The magic, interestingly enough, still seems to come from the bodies of the people wielding it, but instead of glyphs and scarifications placed on the flesh, the magic is instead found in the blood. This felt especially appropriate for a story that is centered around royalty and lineage. The stakes and the scope are on the broader end of things yet there's still a charming intimacy that the story benefits from and perhaps would not work without. By the end of it all, I felt quite attached to the characters and invested in the fate of their kingdom. I also liked that certain details of this world's history are being learned by the characters and those discoveries play an important part in their plans to secure it's future. It felt like a creative way to give historical exposition an actual place in the story rather than tossing it in to provide context or justification or certain plot points. The stylistic choices and quirks I mentioned for the first novella are still very much applicable here so if you didn't love the way that one read, there's no real guarantee skipping over to this one will go any better for you. That said, there's no obvious connection between this world and the one that Black inhabits so if court politics and prophesies of doom are more your speed than murder and magical detectives with a chip on their shoulder, then you definitely can skip to this story without being at all confused about what's going on. 

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CONCLUSION

If you're a reader like me who has been having a hard time finding time for books or are simply not a fan of the longer, sweeping tales that have dominated modern fantasy writing, then this book may provide some quality entertainment. The novellas are short and focused, but they strike a lot of the same notes as a full length novel and are structured in such a way that they have an intriguing opening act, a compelling and revelation-filled middle, and climactic final sequence that builds upon everything that has happened up to that point. They may not stimulate a lot of philosophical thought or make you question aspects of life, but I found them to be pretty entertaining and I loved that I could get the same satisfaction from reading a novel out of a far more condensed narrative. I think this could also make a decent side read if you are the type that's into the elaborate tales of Martin, Sanderson, and other modern fantasy rock-stars.

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