This is a bit late for the usual slew of “end of year favourites” blog posts, but the best book of 2017 was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames.
Despite the fact that I write Young Adult books, the genre that I enjoy reading most is fantasy. I grew up reading traditional fantasy series such as Terry Brooks’ Shannara series and Magician by Raymond E. Feist, but in the last decade or so, I’ve enjoyed the new wave of fantasy writers. Authors such as Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss and Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie, take what’s good about traditional fantasy, and through a combination of brilliant characterisation, upending the tropes of genre, injecting new ideas and perhaps most importantly, liberally sprinkling this heady stew with a grim sense of humour, produce stories that feel both fresh and exciting.
Nicholas Eames does all of the above with his brilliant debut novel, Kings of the Wyld, and then adds a whole new element that I’ve never seen before: he compares the life of a band of adventurers with the life of a rock band on tour! Whilst this sounds like it might be an ill-judged mash-up of styles, the author manages to pull this intriguing concept off with remarkable style in a thrilling tale that wraps up neatly but leaves you hungry for an encore.
Crammed together in a world where resources are scarce, humans and monsters don’t get along too well, so it’s up to “bands” of fighters/wizards to get together and go on “tour”, killing Dungeons & Dragons-style monsters, and in the process, make a name for themselves.
We see the story through the eyes of Clay Cooper, a middle-aged former mercenary who’s glory days are long past, now living the quiet life with his wife and daughter. But when former bandmate Gabe turns up on his doorstep, pleading for his help in rescuing his own daughter from a monstrous horde in a distant city under siege, Clay must make a decision. When Gabe announces that “It’s time to get the band back together,” I can almost hear the opening salvo of power chords in my head, because surely there will be a film or TV adaptation of this book, complete with a classic rock soundtrack? But for Clay, Gabe and their bandmates, it means that things are about to get interesting.
So, Clay and Gabe set out to round up the other members of their former band, Saga. But they know that this won’t be an easy task as many of their former bandmates have unresolved issues with each other, and this first part of the book is an absorbing read. It’s well written, with the author developing his main characters nicely as we are introduced to the various band members. Clay is a brilliantly-realised character; an old-timer who knows that times have changed and views the life of modern bands through jaded eyes. The fact that modern bands do city-to-city tours and fight monsters in arenas, rather than the traditional method of going out and hunting them down in the wild, is just one of the areas explored from Clay’s cynical perspective, and the author does a great job of making this, and similar grumbles, both entertaining and informative. We get Clay’s thoughts on rival bands from yesteryear, ruthless agents and up and coming bands who don’t take their career seriously enough – I can almost hear AC/DC’s It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock & roll) playing in the background at this point.
Here’s a typical Clay Cooper thought:-
Clay had lost count of the times he’d bumbled his way through a messy brawl, only to hear a bard convince a crowded tavern it had been the greatest, most glorious battle ever waged between man and beast.
There’s plenty of spot-the-rock references going on; the band’s wizard is called Moog (surely a reference to the 1960s analogue synthesizers), Clay’s home town is called Coverdale and there’s even a minor character called Neil The Young! Despite all the laughs and rock-related crossover, the book still has time for some genuinely touching moments. I particularly liked the Ettin (a two-headed giant if you’re not familiar with D & D or monster myths); each head has a different name and the characters of Gregor and Dane – one blind, the other describing their ugly surroundings to his brother as if the world were all sweetness and light – are written with a warmth that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such a monster.
Whilst the book is not perfect – one of our heroes suffers a major setback near the end of the book that, for me, didn’t have as heavy a consequence as it should have – it’s one that I heartily recommend. The main characters are superbly written, and most of the supporting cast is right up there with them. There’s plenty of laughter along with some serious emotion as well, and despite the humour, the story plays out with the right level of gravity that you’d expect from a blood and guts fantasy tale. If you like fantasy, or rock music or D & D, or Spinal Tap, then there’s a chance that you’ll enjoy this book. If like me, you are a fan of all of these, then this is a book that you’ll love.
It’ll be interesting to see if Nicholas Eames can keep the bandwagon rolling with the second book in the series, Bloody Rose, which is published later this year.
You can read more about the author and his work at https://nicholaseames.com/