Book Review: The King-Killing Queen (The Old World Tales, #1) by Shawn Speakman

Book Review: The King-Killing Queen (The Old World Tales, #1) by Shawn Speakman

ARC was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Cover art illustrated by Magali Villeneuve

The King-Killing Queen by Shawn Speakman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Series: The Old World Tales (Book #1 of 3)

Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Historical Fantasy

Pages: 296 pages (Hardcover edition)

Published: 7th November 2023 by Grim Oak Press (Indie)

The King-Killing Queen is a great and fast-paced Arthurian-inspired fantasy novel.

“You can learn a great deal about a man by what he reads.”

This is one of the most surprising reads of the year for me. I first knew about The King-Killing Queen, a previous and brief version of it anyway, from The King Must Fall anthology published by Grimdark Magazine. Beyond that, I had not read anything by Shawn Speakman. Everything I knew about Speakman was limited to his incredible involvement in science fiction and fantasy publishing, mainly in his role as the owner of Grimoak Press, one of the finest press of limited editions. Seriously, I own one limited edition published by Grimoak Press, The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, and it is ridiculously stunning. Why only one? Well, limited editions are expensive, and as much as I want to, I am not in a state where I can afford them all. When I had the chance to read the full and more polished version of The King-Killing Queen, even though I still have more than 200 review requests to read, I decided to only read two chapters to sample the prose. And I ended up reading the entire novel while I was in the midst of reading To Green Angel Tower by Tad Williams. Short fantasy books like this are necessary for me. Most fantasy books I read are huge; an easy-to-read and engaging book like The King-Killing Queen provides me a needed refreshment before I go back to tackling the huge fantasy tomes. Not only do Shawn Speakman and Grimoak Press create high-quality limited edition books, but Speakman is a wonderful storyteller, too.

Picture: The King-Killing Queen by Magali Villeneuve

The King-Killing Queen is the first book in a trilogy, and I believe this trilogy will be a prequel series to Speakman’s Annwn Cycle series. When Alafair Goode lay wounded during his quest to destroy Mordreadth the Great Darkness, a witch magicked and saved the future High King’s life to fulfill his destiny. Except for natural death, Alafair and his descendants are practically immortal.

But things change when decades later, Sylvie Raventress (the devoted apprentice to the Master Historian stepbrother of the High King) is named as a successor and heir to the High King when Alafair is on his deathbed. Worse, the immortality curse bestowed ended when Alafair died. This means Alafair’s scions and Sylvie are no longer immortal. Now, Sylvie must do everything she can to protect the throne from her siblings and guarantee the tenuous peace between humanity and the Fae continues.

Picture: The Vow by Donato Giancola

As you can probably tell from the premise, The King-Killing Queen does not have a groundbreaking premise for a story. This kind of background has been told in countless epic fantasy series. However, the historical fantasy world-building (more on this later) and Speakman’s accessible prose centered on keeping the reader’s attention focused on the book work well for me. Speakman’s writing is easy to read, scenes are easy to visualize, and the narrative is undoubtedly prioritized to keep the pages turning more than anything else. Despite its short length, The King-Killing Queen has a clear three-part story structure division. And every one of them is concentrated on Sylvie thwarting the deadly battle for the throne and her determination to uphold the peace between humans and the Fae. I enjoyed reading how every part begins with memorable turns of phrases about deaths, and if you are looking for a good fantasy novel to entertain you for a few short hours without feeling bored, this is the book for you.

“Every man who gains power wields it for his benefit.”

Of course, a fast-paced story alone won’t be sufficient for most fantasy readers. We now have myriad options for terrific fantasy books; a fantasy book or a story must bring more noticeable elements to stand out. It cannot rely only on a few factors. And for me, more than a fast-paced storyline or actions, characters and characterizations will always be the most crucial hook of a book. Having well-written and memorable characters keep me constantly interested, and it elevates every other powerful feature a book has. Fortunately, Sylvie is a likable heroine. She is kind-hearted, righteous, and loyal. But also ruthless when needed. Basically, she gets the job done. I won’t lie, though. The fast-paced narration did diminish some potential emotional scenes for me. I would certainly prefer some key pivotal scenes to be ruminated longer rather than having Sylvie immediately move on to other activities. But this is not a big issue in my reading experience because many intriguing aspects of the world-building in The King-Killing Queen made up for its flaws.

“When a man lies, he murders a part of the world.”

Those who follow my reviews will probably know this. I am usually not a fan of historical fantasy. And I think The King-Killing Queen can be categorized as one. As a fantasy reader, I prefer my epic fantasy books to have a secondary world or city setting. This isn’t the case with this novel. All the events in the first part happen in Mont Saint-Michel. The King-Killing Queen actually takes place in medieval France but with added high fantasy elements such as magical swords, faes, unicorns, and more. Thankfully, the chemistry blended nicely, and it truly helps that I am also a fan of Arthurian retelling. The big issue I tend to have with historical fantasy is it can somehow feel jarring and distracting to my immersion when a real-life prominent historical figure or setting appears. Case in point: The Traitor Son Cycle by Miles Cameron. But in The King-Killing Queen, I always felt this is a high fantasy setting despite it taking place in France. It was wonderful. If you knew about this book through the successful Kickstarter campaign of it, you might also know Speakman has another prequel graphic novel about Saint Emmer and the sword Bruyere titled The Briar-Sword Monk. I haven’t read that graphic novel yet, but I assume the events in the graphic novel were indeed explained in The King-Killing Queen. I can’t go into details because of spoilers, but I will say this, I am so captivated by Saint Emmer’s story. And if given the chance, I will read The Briar-Sword Monk.

Picture: Bruyere by Lixin Yin

Lastly, speaking of the Kickstarter campaign earlier, we need to talk about the production value of The King-Killing Queen. I read the advanced reading copy edition of the book. I think it is safe to assume the production value of the ARC will be inferior compared to the final hardcover product. The Kickstarter campaign of The King-Killing Queen was immensely successful, and I have no doubt the final product will turn out very dazzling. I am confident in saying this because the ARC edition is already superior compared to many other fantasy books. Take a look at the stunning cover art illustrated by Magali Villeneuve. That cover art is an attention grabber. And that’s not all. There are 9 fitting black-and-white interior illustrations by the legendary Donato Giancola, and the book also comes with a gorgeous map by Jared Blando. All of these enhanced the readability of the The King-Killing Queen for me. And yes, it is wishful thinking of mine that every fantasy book will be this beautifully produced.

Picture: The Unicorn by Donato Giancola

The King-Killing Queen is the kind of fantasy book I will recommend to newcomers to high fantasy. I had fun reading it. It was my first time reading Speakman’s book, and it won’t be the last. If you are a veteran of the fantasy genre, I believe The King-Killing Queen is aptly suitable when you are in need of a short, fast-paced, and engaging Arthurian-inspired fantasy book. I read this at exactly the right time and reading mood, and I look forward to reading the sequel as soon as possible. The book did end on a mean cliffhanger, after all… Consider yourself warned.

“Men forget war’s evil and will always find excuses to battle. It is in their nature.”

Picture: Lumiere by Milivoj Ceran

You can pre-order this book from: Blackwells (Free International shipping)

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

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