When Clay Cooper returns home from work to find his old friend, Gabriel, waiting on him, he knows something is wrong. He learns that Gabe’s headstrong daughter has run off to be a mercenary and ended up in a city besieged by an overwhelming horde of monsters. Gabe is now desperate to get their “band,” Saga, back together and go save her. Saga used to be the most famous mercenary band ever. Tales of Slowhand Clay, Golden Gabe, Arcandius Moog, Matrick Skulldrummer, and Ganelon are still told in the pubs throughout the kingdom to this day.
However, that was many years ago, and they’re no longer the young men they used to be. Clay, in particular, has happily retired to a quiet life in the country with his wife and daughter. So, with great reluctance Clay turns his best friend down. But later, when Clay’s nine-year daughter, Tally, asks,”…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?” thus Saga’s reunion tour begins.
Nicholas Eames asked, “What if Dungeon & Dragon adventurers were like rock bands?” And his answer is: Kings of the Wyld. Saga were real mercenaries, from back when fortune and glory was earned on the battlefield. Nowadays, with the wars are all won and the monsters beaten back, the young badass-wanna-be’s just tour arenas as gladiators or take the occasional gig of handling insignificant incursions from the cursed Heartwyld forest.
The premise alone is enough to sell most sword & sorcery or grimdark nerds — especially the ones with an inclination for head-banging. Kings of the Wyld also has enough combat, mystical creatures, wizardry and/or deviltry, to push the boundaries of polite company. Plus, there are many laugh out-loud moments too — think Joe Abercrombie-Lite, but not too light. Then Eames has to go and mess with his readers’ emotions. If you have a tendency to get attached to fictional characters, prepare to fall in love and have your heart broken by these people — and even a creature or two, but if you’re a cynical old bastard like me … prepare to fall in love and have your heart broken by these people — and even a creature or two.
Personally, Eames had me at the conversation between Clay and his daughter. I know firsthand that there is nothing that a father won’t attempt in order to avoid disappointing his little girl, even if it means risking his life for a friend’s child. Eames proves in Kings of the Wyld that he gets that. He has a deep understanding of human nature and he knows how to exploit it for great storytelling. For my money, that’s what separates the great writers from the good ones.
Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld is an entertaining novel that hits its target pretty close to dead-on. And… that’s kind of it. I don’t have any ominous caveats. For what it is, this novel is a solid piece of workmanship. My only concern is that the target Eames was trying to hit is a fairly small subset of fantasy readers, and one’s mileage will vary a great deal depending on whether or not one happens to be a member of that subset. In other words, Eames is a little more niche than somebody like Brandon Sanderson or Kristen Britain. For some readers, that will make his work less attractive, but for others it’s a very good thing indeed.
Our premise is as follows: Saga was a mega-popular band that toured for years before breaking up. The members are now scattered to the four winds, most of them old, out of shape, or some combination of the two. Clay Cooper was the least famous member of Saga, and he’s settled down to the quiet life with his wife and daughter until frontman Gabe reappears to announce that he wants to reform the old group for one last hurrah. A farewell tour, as it were. The twist is that in Eames’ world, “band” refers to “questing band,” and “tours” are something like “tours of duty.” Saga’s farewell tour will end not in playing to a sold-out house, but in a final battle against the forces of chaos, if they actually get there at all.
It’s a cute conceit, and Eames clearly enjoys playing with it. The band has typical fantasy adventures, but there’s usually a tongue-in-cheek rock-and-roll parallel behind the action. A colosseum battle against a monster is basically just a gig gone badly wrong. A fight against magical forces and hired thugs boils down to a squabble with a money-grubbing agent. Fortunately, Eames is wise enough to realize that he can’t hang the entire novel on that one comedic hook, so he also makes sure to fill the book with send-ups of Lord of the Rings, Conan, and, in particular, Dungeons and Dragons.
The craft elements are solid. Eames’ plot is a twisting string of encounters that — like his aging characters — feels just a touch flabby around the middle, but it’s consistently entertaining and fast-paced. The characterization is strong, particularly that of the protagonist and deuteragonist, and Eames is a very capable prose stylist whose clever imagery and turns of phrase make him startlingly nimble at dancing between moments of broad comedy and scenes of genuine emotional depth.
Also, well, the book is just a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve ever used the term “ripsnorting” in a review before, but this is a ripsnorting novel if there ever was one. I hinted above that it’s not the most streamlined plot I’ve ever read, and that’s true, but on some level it’s not trying to be. Kings of the Wyld isn’t a trained orator telling an anecdote, it’s your gregarious uncle rolling up to the door two beers in and spinning a funny yarn. The charm is rougher, but also — in an odd way — more warm and familiar.
I should reiterate that — like your gregarious uncle — Kings of Wyld may not be appreciated by everyone. All comedy books have to find a balance between being goofy enough to make the reader laugh and being grounded enough that the reader stays interested in the goings-on. The problem is exacerbated in the case of a fantasy comedy, which simultaneously asks its audience to believe in silly things like wizards and dragons and then mocks wizards and dragons for being kind of silly. Satirizing something that takes so much reader investment is a very fine line to walk, and runs the risk of feeling totally unmoored from reality. For the most part, Kings of the Wyld walks the line pretty well, but it’s also a very postmodern comedy, relying heavily on references and riffs to keep the reader engaged. It’s a novel by a true blue sword and sorcery fan for other true blue fans, and if the reader isn’t that into sword and sorcery, Dungeons and Dragons, or — God help us — isn’t much of a habitual fantasy fan at all, then I can foresee steeply diminishing returns.
Overall, though, Kings of the Wyld is a very assured first novel and heralds good things to come from Mr. Eames. It’s an unapologetically geeky book, but there’s nothing wrong with a love letter to a certain branch of fandom. And even the reader who doesn’t get the jokes, doesn’t share the sense of humor, and doesn’t particularly like stories about old grumpy dudes getting nostalgic will have to admit one thing: it is rather ripsnorting now and then. Oh, is it ever ripsnorting.