ARC provided by the publisher—Tor Books—in exchange for an honest review.
Convoluted and complex are probably understatements, but I don’t have any other words to describe the main attributes of this debut.
For those of you who don’t know, The Ruin of Kings have been the fantasy debut that Tor has been promoting heavily for several months now. This novel has been advertised as the debut of the year that’s targeted “For fans of George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfuss”. I’ll be completely honest here, if any publisher or author decides to put all of these giant, super high profile fantasy authors’ references into a debut work by an unknown author, it seriously better be a masterpiece. I’m one of those readers who had their interest for this book sparked by that bold claim, and I jumped at the chance of reading and reviewing it early; expecting it to be a debut that will go down into my ‘best of all time’ lists. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
“A hero who has never had a bad thing happen to him isn’t a hero—he’s just spoiled.”
The Ruin of Kings is Jenn Lyon’s debut and it’s the first out of five books in A Chorus of Dragons series. The main story revolves around Kihrin, who in the present timeline is in jail retelling all the events that have happened to him which eventually led to his capture. Now, here’s where it immediately started to get complicated. Kihrin’s narration doesn’t begin from his actual beginning but halfway through his journey; the first half of Kihrin’s story is instead being narrated by his jailor—Talon. This means there are three main timeframes to follow. First is the present timeline in which Kihrin is in jail telling his story to Talon. Then, the second and third timelines—where the majority of the book takes place in—deal with Kihrin’s past. These chapters are told in a see-saw method, consecutively switching back and forth with each chapter progression in the first person (Kihrin’s narration) and third person (Talon’s narration) perspectives. There are also a lot of footnotes added by another character, because everything you read about Kihrin—in both timelines—was actually done in written format by this character. Not only the unconventional storytelling makes it very easy to lose focus on who’s who or what, many of the characters—and believe me, there are a lot of names to remember—have multiple nicknames, and also similar-sounding names. For example: Teraeth, Terindel, Therin, Tyentso, Kelindel, and Kelinos, just to name a few. To add even more confusion, there were also elements of body swapping, which meant some of the characters you encounter may not be who you think they are.
My main problem with all these is that even after finishing the whole story, it all feels like it was unnecessarily convoluted. I truly believe The Ruin of Kings would’ve been an amazing debut if it was told in a linear and chronological structure. Talon’s narration which began from Kihrin’s true beginning was so much more engaging than Kihrin’s narration due to its natural sense of story progression and characters’ development. Kihrin’s narration began halfway throughout his flashback. Think of it like this. When you’re reading a book, you start reading from the first page and flip through it one at a time. In The Ruin of Kings, not only do you start from the first page, but at the same time you also have to start from the 50% mark; then you continue your progress from each starting point by switching back and forth between two different time frames. I thought there would be a good reason for using this unconventional storytelling style that will result in a huge impact, but there was none. There was no epic convergence or anything like that at all. In the end, it all seems like this unconventional style was included for the sake of making things more complex than necessary. Every chapter became a constant battle of readjusting information gathered in your head due to the different timeframes. Plus, Kihrin in all timeframes sounded like totally different characters due to this storytelling method – the main character’s development became disjointed and abstract rather than natural. When a chapter was great and I was interested to find out what happened next, the narrative forced me to read another chapter from a different timeframe first. And this happened regularly.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy complex epic fantasy, I’ve read and utterly loved Malazan Book of the Fallen and other massive fantasy series. However, The Ruin of Kings didn’t really work out for me, as I felt it was deliberately more complex than it needed to be. I strongly advise readers to check out the preview chapters kindly provided by Tor on their website, or NetGalley before getting this book. For the reasons I mentioned above, I truly believe that you have to truly know what kind of storytelling style you’re getting into here; you can’t rely only on the blurbs and advertisements. I’m saying this so that the book will attract the right audience too. I always try my best to read a book that has my interest with as little information as possible. Most of the time it worked absolutely well, but sadly this was one of those rare cases where it didn’t; I should’ve read at least a few chapters before requesting for the ARC.
I know I have sounded really negative and critical so far but believe me that it wasn’t all bad. The world-building, in particular, was spectacular. Lyons implemented her world-building gradually and there wasn’t any info-dump. The world that Lyons has built in The Ruin of Kings was huge in scope, full of rich history, brimming with dangers, politics, gods, demons, and massive dragon. Lyons also has a superbly engaging prose that even when the story became too convoluted, I was never bored with it and was still intrigued to continue. Finally, the side characters were incredibly well-written. I didn’t find myself invested with Kihrin, but his interaction and banter with the side characters were humorous and entertaining to read. Every side character have their personality well fleshed-out and their own distinct voices. Galen and Doc were two of my favorite characters from the book. I do want to say though, that this book is not for YA. It deals with a lot of heavy and dark topics like rape, incest, slavery, and prejudice that I think is not suitable for a younger audience.
“Real evil is an empire like Quur, a society that feeds on its poor and its oppressed like a mother eating her own children. Demons and monsters are obvious; we’ll always band together to fight them off. But real evil, insidious evil, is what lets us just walk away from another person’s pain and say, well, that’s none of my business.”
My rating speaks for itself; that I liked The Ruin of Kings and I think this was a good debut. Overall, I just didn’t find the book to reach the level of grandeur promised by the very high claims. In my opinion, The Ruin of Kings was a good debut that could’ve been amazing if it follows a more linear and chronological storytelling style. Although in the end this didn’t really work out as much as I hoped, I recommend The Ruin of Kings to readers who are looking for complex epic fantasy with an unconventional storytelling method.
The e-ARC I got was so awfully formatted that it might’ve affect my reading enjoyment and immersion. There’s a chance that I’m going to enjoy the book more on a reread with a finished and well-polished copy. When will that happen, I can’t say for sure yet.
Official release date: February 5th, 2019 (US), February 7th, 2019 (UK)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.