An Overambitious Debut: ‘The Ruin of Kings’

The Ruin of Kings

Jenn Lyons



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.

 

2.5 stars


Words by Lisandra Linde

Donnie The Dolphin

Jenna Brooke Bulfin is an Adelaide writer and mother of three and late last year her first book, Donnie the Dolphin was published by Olympia Publishers. Donnie the Dolphin is a children’s book aimed at young readers aged five and up.

The book’s purpose is to prepare children for school and encourage their individuality and help encourage them to make friends with others, despite how big and scary school can be.

Illustrated by Melanie Balestri, Donnie the Dolphin is the story of Donnie’s first few days of school. The school he attends is full of sharks though, and Donnie feels out of place with his blow-hole and curved tail. How will he ever fit in with all those mean-looking sharks? This is very much a story about difference—championing the message that it is okay to be different and being different can be cool.

This book is ideal for young children struggling to fit in at school, not only encouraging a love of reading but also demonstrating how to deal with challenging social situations, and how to talk about problems with someone you trust.

 


Words by Kayla Gaskell

Flights of Fancy and a Writer’s Imagination

Possibilities

A notice pops up in my inbox, something unexpected: a call for applications for a month’s writer’s residency in Granada, Spain, the city I first visited twelve years ago. Suddenly, I am transported there. I can fully imagine myself being the resident writer, speaking my intermediate-level Spanish, participating in local literary events, adding some more to the writing about Spain that I have already done.

I am so fully taken by such a possibility that during the night I start to feel anxious. I worry about leaving home to travel across the world and all that I would have to organise to make that possible, as well as all the things I would miss about home. It plays out in my mind like a movie, drives me crazy, my imagination giddy with anticipation. I toss and turn as my mind wanders in and out of potential scenarios: the long flight alone; the writer’s room near the university; whether I’d be able to make a cup of tea (should I take my thermos?); the weather; the clothes I would  wear; the people I’d meet; the activities, seminars, readings, or various social events. Would my Spanish would hold up? Would Marina, my flamenco dance teacher, be able to recommend a class I could attend?

 

Anxious and willing

Anxiety is both a physical and mental experience. Once I remember to breathe, my thoughts become clearer. All that seemed confusing or impossible during the night seems lighter and more manageable to me in the morning. I remind myself that people travel all over the world all the time, for work, for pleasure – a month here, two weeks there, ten days elsewhere. It’s no big deal. The distance, the time, the different culture.

I have useful conversations about this possible adventure being realized. What an opportunity, if it were to come off, if it all fell into place. I meet with a fellow writer at a local café and we speak in Spanish about the trip. A good thing for me to be practising if I am going to have discussions or readings or give lectures in Granada. In the meantime, I hope for peace, equanimity and courage.

 

Commitments

I have made a commitment. I have written and organised my application. Three people have written letters of recommendation. I send it all in five attachments to Carmen, the contact person in Granada, and I wait for a response. Did she receive it? It’s there in the outbox saying it has been sent, but how can I know for sure? It’s the last month of winter here, but perhaps over there she’s on holiday, escaping the August heat wave?

If I were to be chosen, I would travel across the globe to the south of Spain and spend November in Granada. This is when I could do with more of the subjunctive in English: if I were to be chosen I would take my work about Spain and share it with Spanish writers, readers and audiences. I would risk the exposure this would entail and the possible criticism for it being inappropriate or for misunderstanding their culture. I would risk being misunderstood myself. Or perhaps they’d appreciate it.

I have made a commitment for this experience to throw further light on my work. I have made a commitment to be immersed in the Spanish language, to participate in the cultural life of Granada, as much as opportunity will allow. I have made a commitment to write, to read, to research and to communicate my interests as clearly as possible.

I have made a commitment to sleep on my own in a foreign city, to face the night demons if necessary, to rely on my inner reserves of strength and to remain open. I have made a commitment to uncertainty.

Chances are this trip will not happen.

I am only one amongst many applicants from around the world. I already know I will be disappointed if I don’t go, even knowing I’ll be nervous if I do. I am preparing myself practically and psychologically for the journey. Now that the application has been sent, I feel a sense of space. Along with all the others it will be considered. What will be, will be. I will stay focused. I feel surprisingly neutral.

I turn to face the wind.

I push myself into it, pleased with the effort.

 

What if . . .

I begin to wonder again, what if they don’t approve of what I have written about their country, their culture, their iconic poet? What if they are offended by this work from an outsider to their culture? Sensitive topics, sensitive themes. I’ll have to risk what little reputation amongst friends, colleagues and readers I might have, lay it on the line. Yet in the end this application might be nothing more than a process. Time will tell.

I need not have worried about my application disappearing into digital space. I guessed rightly that the staff had been on holidays all of August, and as it turned out, early September too; and anyway, as Carmen explained to me on the phone when I eventually rang, in her casual, friendly, no-nonsense Spanish way, also the weather had been a pain because it had been too hot. Too hot to do anything.

 

Yesterday’s surprise

Yesterday’s surprise was that I look as old as I am. If in doubt, just see my latest passport photo. See how my face has lost its roundness, see all the new lines and folds in the skin, like a crumpled piece of waxed paper, moist enough, but too thin to resist gravity. Line up all the old passport photos: 23, 43, 63 . . . see how I’ve progressed through the decades from a black-haired, young woman to one of late middle age, happy to have made it this far, but astonished at the changes nonetheless. We like to say that photos are deceiving and perhaps they are, the camera can manipulate, but so can our eyes – our failing eyes – when we look into the mirror in a favourable, softening light, instead of the stark white light that lays the truth bare, reminding us of the ultimate journey we all have to take. I celebrate being here now. I celebrate all that makes life a curious wonder, including my changing self.

 

Equanimity

Today I have reached the peak on the mountain of equanimity. On the mountain that overlooks our river-city of Hobart, I sit, listen and look around, just one small being; here temporarily, in this ancient, natural world, breathing in the scent of solid earth, grounding myself. My vivid imagination is both a gift and a burden, the weight of some possible scenario carried like a back-pack full of provisions “just in case”. The waiting game is a strange place to be. Things come in their own time. There are people waiting all over the world to take the next step: waiting for permission, for rain, for answers, for love or compassion. Waiting and hoping. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that ultimately there is nothing to chase after, that we can go back to ourselves and enjoy our breathing. So for now I am here on this solid mountain listening. Listening to the birds and the breeze, absorbing the peace. Equanimity. We come. We go. I am one being in a magnificent universe. Here now, beyond thinking, beyond anticipating. Que sera, sera.

 

Soy escritora (I am a writer)

I am, at this point in my life, able to live everyday freely and as I chose. In our culture people like to say they are busy, that they are active because it tells themselves and others they somehow live a worthy life. What do you do? is one of the first questions we ask people when we are getting to know them. I no longer join the flow of people in the mornings on their way to paid work. For the past 18 years I have been finding my way in the world of books and literature, writing, reading and publishing my work, participating in the literary life of my community. This is how I spend most of my time. Every now and then I still have to remind myself of what this means. One of my first daily activities is to write sitting up in bed, looking out my window at my neighbourhood valley and, with my fine-point pencil, discover the words that are ready to fall onto the smooth, inviting paper of my notebook. Call it a task and it already sounds more acceptable to our culture’s work ethic. Call it work. But I have always wanted my life, this one life, to be more than just a list of tasks that get ticked off every day. I want spontaneity, uncertainty, freedom. The purpose of being a writer is to be a writer which means writing, reading and thinking from morning until night. But also, of course, attending to those “dear tasks of continuance” so affectionately described by Denise Levertov, that keep body and mind together and sometimes spark some unexpected flash of inspiration. The question in Spanish is: to what are you dedicated?  To answer this in English is to uncover another side to the question what do you do? In my life I am dedicated to writing and literature, learning Spanish, learning the art of flamenco dance, creating gardens, maintaining my home, responding to injustice, having good relationships with friends and family, looking after myself. I am no longer the frustrated writer with little time to herself. I am the poet with space and time, my work is out in the world finding places to be. I feel most purposeful when I’m writing a poem or a piece of prose. Who am I still trying to convince? Perhaps my internal critic who tugs at my confidence as I wait to have my application considered by an international panel of judges.

 

Life is what happens . . .

The silence of a sun-lit morning is like a prayer. My eyes drink in its astonishing beauty. These last few weeks I’ve been thinking about death, about life ending or transforming as Thich Nhat Hanh says and how each day of our lives is precious. We have had a significant death in the family, our dear, elderly father-friend. A man with a loving smile and of gentle persuasion. To be the eternal writer-witness, not only of other people, events and things but also of yourself, gives me a serious gaze. I feel the need to smile and laugh more. Every thought, every act, every word carries a signature says the wise monk. Anne means grace. Can I live up to my name?

 

The significance of zero

Today is the day the selection panel will announce their decision. It is still night time in Granada but already it feels like the answer is “no”. I’ve been ahead of myself these last few months, anticipating a time to come that for all intents and purposes is not going to happen for me. On this side of the world we are always ahead of agreed time. And for these last few months I have been, in my mind, three-quarters convinced that I would soon be in the opposite time zone, leaving the brighter, longer spring days here for the shorter late-autumn days there. Now I feel sure I am not going to be making that journey. All should be confirmed by tonight. And all my practical preparation to date will be for naught – the books, the plans, the ideas for workshops and projects. Perhaps not for naught entirely. Zero is a significant number. A chance to begin again.

 

El compromiso

How to tempt fate? Name it, decide on an alternative course of action, pretend you are taking initiative,(water the garden so it will rain), make other plans, reach a conclusion, a compromise – only to have fate shout back at you. “But wait!” Wait another week as it extends the question mark over your life for a few more days. Let me just trick and tire you out, it says, deflate your new resolve, stretch it out, beyond the limit. We’re on Spanish time here. In Spanish compromiso means promise not compromise. Beware of false friends. Suddenly I feel tired of it all: of being ahead of myself. The waves of adrenalin have worn me out. I’m ready to go but will I be going? I’m over it. Over it.

 

The Art of Living

This morning, in this part of the world in our little city beneath the mountain it is blessedly quiet. I have slept and woken again. The Earth has turned. Again, I have arrived at D-day, the extended D-day. I’m sure I know the decision already and it’s time to leave this strange land of waiting. Time to let go. For the past three months I have been encapsulated in a bubble of possibility. Time to burst the bubble. Time to become un-encapsulated. This year has been a year of waiting for all sorts of things: replies from publishers, application results, calls from the hospital. The art of waiting involves effort and patience. As does the art of writing. Lorca once proclaimed, “true poetry, true effort, renunciation.” A writer recognises these sentiments. I have learnt that the art of waiting takes me to the present moment, wherein is found the art of living. I smile at the cloud in my tea.

 

Re-viewing

I am not going to Granada in November. As I had strongly suspected by the end, I was not one of the two writers selected out of, what turned out to be, seventy international applicants. Time to relinquish all that build-up. Time to close the file. Time to wind down, to sleep more peacefully. Time to return to my life in this small city with its own concerns. Time to reflect on the power of the imagination and how it can draw you into its intricately, detailed and convincing world, a world that is as big or as small as you want it to be, but a make-believe world nonetheless.

 

November 2018.


Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Words by Anne Collins

anne-collins-photo.jpgAnne Collins’ last book of poems The Language of Water (2014) tells the story of a modern day odyssey. Her two earlier poetry collections are titled Seasoned with Honey (with three other poets, 2008) and The Season of Chance (2005). Her landscape memoir titled My Friends This Landscape (2011) is a collection of prose and poetry. A forthcoming collection of poetry How to Belong will be published in 2019. Her manuscript (prose and poetry) with the Spanish themes is currently under consideration.