Review copy provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
I finally got around to review Richard Nell’s highly acclaimed indie debut, Kings of Paradise. My verdict: an impressive grimdark debut.
I was first offered to review Kings of Paradise by Nell himself back in November 2017. Back then, Kings of Paradise had around 20 ratings and I simply didn’t have time to read it because I was swamped by ARCs, review copies, and Oathbringer’s release, which was also in November; I told Nell that I’ll give his book a read in 2018. I certainly didn’t expect that the book would garner 150 new ratings and many extremely positive reviews; I’m pretty sure there’s a Nell fan club being formed already. I won’t bother you with rearranging the synopsis into my own words, the blurb is spoiler-free and you should read that if you want to know what the plot is about. I’ll start off this review immediately with my favorite part of the book, Ruka’s storyline.
I can’t emphasize highly enough how much I love Ruka’s storyline. If you think Jorg Ancrath was a good anti-hero? I’ll raise Ruka to challenge that. Just within one book, in my opinion, Ruka has already triumphed over Jorg as an anti-hero. Nell is extremely good at his characterizations of the two main characters but what he did with Ruka was truly something special. Ruka’s story was dark, a deliciously grim and dark tale and I’ll be honest here, Ruka’s POV was easily one of the best anti-hero POV I’ve ever read in grimdark fantasy. The story of the book literally begins with him cannibalizing someone and then it immediately shifted to his traumatizing past as a kid. Being deformed and growing up in a cruel world, he started off as this sweet child who loves his mother but became more ruthless with the story progression. Right from the first chapter, I was immediately hooked to find out what made him become such a character in the present timeline. However, even more importantly, what made his story even better was the depth of empathy I have towards his character despite the insane, dark, savage, and brutal actions he had to do growing up. Enough said, truly a brilliant, original, and fantastic coming-of-age anti-hero story. Although Ruka completely stole the spotlight for me, Kale’s story was one of the most positive aspects of the book.
Kale and Ruka’s story can be described as light versus darkness in comparison but they do have similarities in the harsh way they were brought up; despite their different circumstances. Kale’s story is centered on his coming of age and he genuinely tries to become a good person. The best way to describe Kale’s story, in my opinion, would be the combination of both Vaelin from Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song and Brian Staveley’s The Emperor Blades. Kale’s story is one of brotherhood, forbidden love, and military school. If you love Vaelin’s story in The Emperor’s Blade and Blood Song (like I did), I have no doubt you’ll love his POV. Despite my issue with the abundance of romance that didn’t work for me (no surprise really coming from me) in Kale’s story, I was never bored with reading his POV; delightful, gripping, and definitely one of the highlights of the book for me.
The originality in Nell’s world-building is another factor that I highly appreciate. The setting of his world didn’t stick to the famous medieval European setting, he instead adapts a lot of different cultures of our world into his book. The first example, the ‘Ascomi’ which came from ‘Ascomanni’, which is what the Scandinavians called themselves originally. The meaning behind it is ‘men of ash’. Another example, Orang Kaya, which was the term used to describe wealthy people in the book. If you’re not Indonesian, you probably won’t know about this but Orang Kaya is literally an Indonesian term for, guess what, rich people/human. Don’t believe me? Go search Orang Kaya on Google and I guarantee you’ll see images of rich people throwing their money everywhere. There are of course plenty more such as Pyu (a group of city-states that existed in Burma) and a few Norse inspirations but I’ll have to stop here and let you find out for yourself. Nell’s prose was also praise-worthy. His prose was lyrical and engaging to read and there was literally only two typo I spotted within this 600 pages tome. It absolutely didn’t feel like a debut as it was very well-polished, easy to read, and words flowed wonderfully. A bit of a very minor gripe is that Nell used a lot of italic words; I don’t think they’re really necessary. I’m not speaking about characters inner dialogues, but this is the best example. As for the typo, I literally spotted only two typos out of this 600 pages tome. There was however a lot of words being italicized which I thought was unnecessary. It didn’t detract my overall ratings but it did distract my immersion several times because the majority of the pages were filled with it, and I’m not talking about inner dialogues.
After all these praises, you might be wondering why not 5 stars? Trust me, I wish I can give this book 5 stars but I can’t. I have two main issues with this book despite all its greatness. Have you ever read POV’s that was so good that it became a double-edged blade for the book? This is one of those cases. I have mentioned my love for Ruka’s and Kale’s story but there was actually one more main POV in the book, Dala; this is where one of my main issues lies. I never stop wishing to go back to the other two main POV. Was Dala’s story bad? Not really, it just pales in comparison and I personally wasn’t interested in her story at all. Dala’s story felt like an unnecessary side dish in the face of the main courses to me. Her POV did eventually converge with another main character at 70% mark. That’s the point where I finally started to care about her POV, but it’s not because I was invested in her character but because I care about knowing the other main character’s storyline from her view, not her. She’s just not memorable in my opinion, give it a day or two and I know I’ll forget about her.
The other issue I had with the book was the pacing. The last 30% of the book moves way too fast, with many completely new POV’s to follow popping out and there was plenty of time skip happening. This felt different from the first 70% which really took its time building the characters and story meticulously. Also, the amount of time we spend with a character can be too long and the POV’s changes between characters were too far in between. Here’s an example, the first 32% was dominated heavily by Ruka and Kale’s POV. Kale’s last POV in part one ended at the 32% mark. By this point, I was already super engaged with both Ruka and Kale’s storyline but the story shifted its focus to a new character, Dala and it never goes back to Kale’s story again until the 56% mark; that’s around 140 pages. This probably would be okay if I actually care about Dala’s story but like I mentioned before, I wasn’t. This means that I was forced to read 140 pages before getting back to POV that I care about. In this kind of epic fantasy, I also wish there were more engaging female characters for variety. Other than Dala, there was only one or two very brief side female character’s POV to read so if you don’t like Dala, there probably won’t be any female character for you to root for. In fact, other than Ruka’s mom which appeared briefly, none of the female characters were memorable at all to me.
I’ll be honest here, some of the problems I mentioned most likely come from the fact that my expectation for this book was quite high. I can’t help it. When you saw many reviews saying something along the line of “this will win SPFBO for sure!” “I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t win SPFBO!” several times before the competition even started, expectations bounded to increase. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that this is a strong contender for the competition and like they said, it might even actually win; especially knowing the judges’ preferences with loving grimdark and epic fantasy. The book just fell short a bit from my high expectation so I’m partly to blame here.
Despite the issues I had on the book, my rating—4 stars—speaks for itself that overall, I enjoyed reading this book. I’m pretty sure that Nell’s career as an author will be a bright one. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves A Song of Ice and Fire and grimdark epic fantasy. Kings of Paradise was a fascinatingly dark, original, and magnificent read. I’m definitely looking forward to how this will fare in SPFBO.