The Ruin of Kings
The Ruin of Kings, the first title in author Jenn Lyons epic fantasy series ‘A Chorus of Dragons’, is structurally ambitious but fails to deliver on its own lofty aims. The story itself is standard fare for the fantasy genre, with dragons, magic and scheming nobles aplenty. The protagonist, Kihrin, is a seemingly ordinary boy who ends up entangled in intrigue and mayhem thanks to his secret noble heritage and much-sought-after magical item. This is all well and good. Fantasy readers are rather accepting of the old tropes, provided they’re given a fresh perspective. The question is, does Lyons deliver something new to the lost-noble-boy story?
Arguably, yes. In some ways Kihrin is a departure from the typical chosen-one lost-noble hero. For one, he isn’t insufferably righteous. In terms of the moral spectrum, he falls somewhere in the grey region: he has admirable values, like protecting his loved ones and disapproving of slavery, but he’s also up for butchering people without guilt when the situation calls for it. This places Kihrin somewhere between the goody-two-shoes hero and the darker, gore-splattered Grimdark hero. The mix is a rather nice one. Or, it could have been, if Lyons had given Kihrin the space to breathe and express himself on the page.
Kihrin is at the centre of the story, yet we never really get to know him. We know a great deal about him– in the same way a sleep-deprived university student might know a lot about King Henry VIII of England if they’ve read his whole Wikipedia page– but we know nothing beyond what happens to him. We don’t know who he is underneath it all. His thoughts and feelings rarely shine through, even though Kihrin narrates for half the book. One could argue that Lyons is merely showing Kihrin’s reservations about being open and honest about his thoughts and feelings when recounting his story – he is telling it all to a shapeshifting monster after all.
The shapeshifting monster, Talon, is the co-narrator of this book. In fact, their narrations switch from chapter to chapter. Talon recounts Kihrin’s early life –his noble heritage and the scheming world of the noble families of Quur. Talon has a little bit of sass, and her recount sometimes tends towards humour, but other than the smallest of changes, the two narration styles are almost indistinguishable. So much so that at times the only indication that we’ve switched from Talon to Kihrin is the switch from third person to first, which is a little jarring.
Besides the feeling that the characters were not fully fleshed out, there was another barrier to bar the reader from connecting with them, and this was the structure of the book. It is, arguably, the most ambitious part of this novel. Where the story is fairly standard for fantasy, with little departure from well known tropes, the structure is vastly different from most fantasy novels. The book is split into two main storylines: Talon’s tale of Kihrin’s heritage and subsequent involvement in noble plots and Kihrin’s tale of what happened after. These two storylines are fine on their own. The problem arises when you consider that they are both told side by side. The constant switch between Talon’s storyline and Kihrin’s means that the reader spends more time sorting between the two timelines rather than engaging with the story. Something revealed in storyline A is already known in storyline B – which makes any feeling of surprise at a ‘reveal’ feel shallow. The chapters are quite short – usually only one or two scenes per chapter before the next chapter yanks the reader out of one story and into the other. The result is something over-convoluted and extremely hard to engage with. The fact that both storylines are about pieces of Kihrin’s journey means that the reader is constantly switching between the adolescent and adult versions of Kihrin, while never really getting to know either of them.
The most important part of any hero’s journey is the character’s growth in response to his or her experiences. Kihrin experiences a great deal – from encounters with demons to death cults, necromancers to evil wizards, and even dragons. All these experiences shape his character but it’s difficult to trace these changes because of the baffling back-and-forth. In the end, who is Kihrin and why should any of us care what he’s going through?
So, was it structure alone that hollowed out Kihrin’s character and made the story suffer? Unfortunately, no. The structure of this book is certainly the height of overambitious writing, but there’s another insidious case of the author over-reaching her skill, to the detriment of her work. This is a book in which noble families and the families of magical beings plays a crucial role. This means that the reader has to learn about who was whose great-grandfather and who inter-married into which family. This complex exploration of family trees can be done well, as writers like George R. R. Martin have shown in the past. Unfortunately, in this case it was not. Lyons has constructed a network of families that are bafflingly overcomplicated. Not only are the families full of inter-related people, many of these people have multiple identities which change throughout the course of the story. It doesn’t help that her fantasy world involves magical stones that let people switch bodies with others or that every time someone switches, they change bodies with someone important to the family lines.
Consequently, there are multiple dramatic reveals of ‘oh my, he was this person all along!’ and ‘that means that person is actually that person’s dad/brother not their brother/dad’. Do this enough times in a 500+ page book and it starts to get tacky and even laughable.
Really, the problem seems to be Lyons trying to overcomplicate her story in order to make it clever. It’s an ambitious move, one that many epic and high fantasy writers are guilty of botching in the past. The sad reality is that a complex story is only as good as all the simple foundations the author has laid out to support it. If the characters and core story don’t resonate, then the book will ultimately fail: no matter how many lost princes and magical plots you throw into the mix.
Could this story have worked? Yes. It absolutely could have. Lyons had all the right pieces on the board – a fun story with some beloved tropes, characters who could have made it compelling and world building which was actually quite interesting and fresh. I believe that if she had focused on those core elements and honed them a little more then this would have been a solid start to a series. There are parts of the plot that were awkward and a little clumsily executed, but on the whole, there was enough positive content to make up for the blunders. It was the decision to turn the focus away from the foundations and onto making the book structurally complex that let the book down. It’s frustrating, really.
This was a promising book with a decent premise that lacked the needed pay-off because of the author’s overambitious approach. Will I be tuning into the next instalment? It’s a reluctant maybe from me.
Words by Lisandra Linde