This book begins with a young man in a prison cell, chatting with his torturer. It also begins with a young man being sold as a slave at auction. And then it begins a third time with a young man casing an empty house, finding far more than a simple burglar should find.
They’re all the same young man. Confused yet? Well, get comfortable with that feeling. Ruin of Kings is a spectacular new work of epic fantasy by newcomer Jenn Lyons, but you’re going to need every glossary, map, index, and dynastic chart provided to keep up if you want to understand the particulars. You can do without them if you prefer to just let the action and violence wash over you; that’s certainly possible. If you’re the sort who doesn’t do appendices, I’d still recommend you read this rather than not. But caveat emptor: It’ll blow your mind, but it won’t hold your hand.
Kihrin, the young man from the opening chapters, is even more than a prisoner/slave/burglar. He’s also the scion of a noble house, hidden from his parents and kept in ignorance as a minstrel at a brothel. This old-school SFF gambit gets new life from its particulars, namely, that his parents are not desperate do-gooders, but evil of a kind that summons demons. Or, at least one of them was. But were his “adoptive” parents hiding him from his birth parents out of an outpouring of virtue, or because they had their own plans? Kihrin will have to lean on all the subtlety he ever learned as a thief and all the bravery he learned to sing about to figure out exactly how to survive. And along the way, he might also figure out why he’s so important to an evil wizard, a goddess (or two), a death cult, an immortal family, a few demons, and the emperor.
The narrative is told in two major timelines, one starting from the “beginning” of Kihrin’s encounters with his dubious family, and the other starting from the slave auction when things have—obviously—gone very, very badly. I don’t think I’ve seen alternating chapters for the same character in this way before, and I think it’s a clever way to tell the story. It lets us pick up pieces of Kihrin’s puzzling inheritance and destiny from a number of angles, all while making sure there’s never a lull in the action.
This book felt like it was being plotted by cartomancy, only instead of a tarot deck, they had a Commander deck from Magic: The Gathering. What’s next? Demons! Dragons! Snake cults! Shipwrecks! Always something wild, and never the same thing twice.
That may sound deprecating, but I genuinely appreciate how much audacity this takes. It’s like Raymond Chandler’s advice (“When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun…”) on supernatural steroids. And all the elements do come together quite well, even if you need to dip into the index to make sure you understand who all those ducks are, sitting so nicely in a row.
I was hesitant to pick up this book, since I’m very, very tired of epic fantasies that start strong and then…don’t. (Looking at you, GRRM and Patrick Rothfuss.) Normally I would at least wait until the second book was out to start on the first, but once I started Ruin of Kings, I couldn’t stop. It’s smart, it’s innovative, it has absolutely bonkers action, and it has just enough humor to keep it from being too grim. It’s irresistible, in other words. So don’t resist. Just get ready. Ruin of Kings comes out tomorrow.