The Kingdom of Liars (2020) is a debut novel by Nick Martell and the beginning of his series THE LEGACY OF THE MERCENARY KING. As such, it shows some debut issues with character, plotting, and world-building, though it has an interesting mystery at its core.
There has “always been a Kingman in Hollow” goes the refrain, a member of the Kingman family who acts as a check on the king. But some years before the novel’s start, Michael’s father, David Kingman, killed the king’s youngest son. Following the Kingman Riots, Michael’s father was executed by the king as a traitor, his mother placed in any asylum thanks to dementia-like issues, and his family stripped of their status and taken in by a foster father. Since then his sister Gwen and brother Lyon have found minor places in society while Michael grew up conning Low Nobles for money. The novel opens with Michael, now a young man, awaiting trial himself for killing the king, and the story that follows is one long flashback explaining how he got into this situation.
While the flashback structure is not all that original (nor is the “awaiting death” context), it works fine for the most part here. It does mean that Michael has built-in reasons for not explaining certain terms or contexts as both he and his recorder are familiar with them, and while sometimes this leads to an effective slow reveal of background, at other times it leaves the reader a bit at sea. I’d say that Martell doesn’t quite find the balance between the two.
The setting is the city of Hollow, which years ago fought a difficult Gunpower War and is now embroiled in a kind of civil war, with a rebellion army outside the walls and its commander, known as The Emperor, fomenting terror attacks within the city. I say “kind of civil war” because, to be honest, it was all a bit fuzzy, both the logistics and the motivations. References within the story and actual events based on the “rebellion” felt more than a little random, more in service to the needs of the author’s plotting than to any sense of a well-thought out conflict between two clear groups and two clearly differing ideologies beyond a vague “down with royalty” vibe. The city itself doesn’t really come alive in terms of culture, physical layout, or its place in a wider world context. The same holds true with the magical system, which involves pretty standard fantasy talents (the ability to throw lightning, manipulate fire, etc.) one is born with and then can hone or be taught. The most compelling aspect is that unfettered or unskilled use of them can cost the wielder memories, but this is never mined for anywhere near its rich potential. And the whole system is somewhat cloudy. World-building, therefore, is a definite weakness here and something one hopes Martell will improve upon in the following book.
Characterization is up and down. Michael is a tough character to write. A young man often wallowing in self-pity over his family’s situation, obsessed with his family’s legacy, and carrying a lot of anger towards the king and nobles, his dead father, his foster-father, and his family members that have moved on more with their own lives. As such, especially early on in The Kingdom of Liars, he’s hard to root for or engage with. But personally, I’m good with giving us an unlikable, immature character who grows into themselves over the course of events and that’s mostly what Martell gives us here, with all the accordant stumbles and regressions that come with personal growth. As one character tells him, Michael makes a lot of the same mistakes and while frustrating to his companions and to the reader, it’s also pretty realistic. Other characters are a mixed bag. Some are interestingly drawn, such as an alcoholic noble who employs Michael for an illicit task or a young blind noble who befriends Michael. Others are more flat and seem more plot devices than full characters. The corrupt and cruel crown prince is a pretty standard twirling-mustache villain for instance. There’s also a problem with characters popping up or dropping out randomly.
The mystery at the core of the plot — was Michael’s father actually guilty of killing the king’s son, and if so, why, and if not, who was — is intriguing, as are the several complications that arise from it. Other aspects of plotting are less successful. More than once events rely on a chance meeting or an implausible action or belief. At one point I made a note that I hoped one character’s response to an event was merely a ploy because otherwise it beggared belief. At other points I simply wrote “convenient” or “c’mon!”, the latter indicating that my frustration level was growing with the implausibility. Meanwhile, many plot moves are predictable, even the twists, though a few work well and Martell mostly keeps the book moving at a nice pace and with a good balance of action scenes and more personal moments. I wish more had been done, and done with more clarity, regarding the socio-economic-political events because they had some good potential. And I quite liked when Martell punctures the whole special-character-with-a-destiny concept, as when Michael “leads” a ragtag group on a dragon hunt (he’s forced into it in hopes it will kill him). Michael is not only not the smartest or most powerful or most clever character in the book; he’s not even any of those things within his small family. It’s an unusual but I think rewarding choice by the author.
Martell certainly shows potential with this debut, even if it feels like the story could have used some more time spent on it sharpening its themes, plotting, and world-building, time spent by both author and editor. I’m hoping that happens with book two, which I’ll pick it up to review, while right now advising readers to hold off to see if the sequel improves on its predecessor.