B.T. Narro's Kin of Kings (2015)
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Basen is the nephew of the dead king of Tenred, who was (whilst alive) the most hated man in the world. Despite their shared surname, however, Basen is firmly on team Good. He and his father were exiled before the last war, and have spent their last few years scrounging out a living in the (enemy) kingdom of Kyrro. No home to go to; no future ahead of them.
Basen, however, has some tricks up his sleeve.
Trained as both a swordsman and a mage (the perks of a royal upbringing), when the famed Academy opens up new students, Basen sees this as an opportunity. Although his father is insistent that Basen try out as a warrior, Basen sells the family sword and buys a wand instead. Despite the wand-seller giving him a faulty article, Basen still astounds the examiners and gets accepted.
Basen also makes the first of his many new friends - the healer Alabell. Alabell and Basen feel an immediate frisson, and bond over Alabell's Academy stories, Basen's sordid family history and the fact that Alabell too is related to royalty.
The bulk of Kin of Kings is a simple school story. The Academy isn't so much rough as it is fiercely competitive. Basen and his new friends are all very good at what they do, and their challenge is less about survival, and more about success. Basen is keen to excel straight past his 'Hiller' surname, by being the best in his class. Sanya, another refugee from Kyrro, is the first female warrior in the Academy's history - she wants to be the best warrior in her class, as to put to bed any suspicions of weakness or favouritism. Cleve, who is also related to someone important, the Academy's supervisor, pushes himself to be the top of the class at everything he does. The other characters - Reela, Alex, Effie, Nick - all have fierce drive as well. And, behind everything, there's the spectre of the recent war. Everyone wants to be as good as they can be, because real life - not tests - is out there, waiting. It is an all-Hermione Hogwarts, with a thousand valedictorians all competing to be the best of the best.
And, as far as school stories go, this is a pretty solid one. Kin of Kings throws in a new surprise every day, aided by the primary protagonist's total ignorance. There's duelling and classwork and homework and special challenges and all sorts of rankings and gruelling endurance tests. Plus, of course, bullies that need to be shown up, professors that have to be impressed (and daringly corrected), and cute classmates with whom to flirt. These familiar scenarios are the book at its best - the social struggles, small triumphs and lunchroom banter that make the characters come to life. The Academy is, a bit like Hogwarts, totally ridiculous, and any conscious examination of how it works or why will immediately falter. But who cares? As a construct for tiny, daily adventures, there are few more enjoyable tropes than a wizard school, and Kin of Kings takes full advantage of its setting.
However, there are also several non-Academy plotlines. Basen's accidentally done something very weird (and slightly astonishing) with his magic. Throughout the book, he's trying to replicate his new trick, as well as puzzle out its significance. There's also a killer on campus - someone is stabbing people to death with silver daggers. For the most part, the murders don't involve Basen directly; he's not out to play Teen Detective, although he does have to deal with the emotional impact of dead people popping up all around him. Finally, there's a - rather massive - political twist that only appears in the last quarter of the book. Very Big Bads arrive out of thin air (perhaps literally) and what began as a series of introspective personal dramas turns into sprawling chaos.
The magical, murderous and political plotlines weave together by the end, but not in a wholly satisfying way. Unfortunately, in the rush to deal with the suddenly-quite-epic plot, all the charming daily dramas of Kin of Kings are sidelined. By the end of the book, Kin of Kings is no longer a school story, but the - slightly-confused - start of something bigger.
So how's it fare?
Is it entertaining? Wizard schools! I'm a sucker for them. And why not? The challenge with fantasy is making an impossible secondary world experience relatable to readers. School stories immediately bridge that gap. It doesn't matter if your hero is learning fireballs or calculus, the experience is familiar to the reader. Kin of Kings does a solid job of making that empathy work, and setting up all the scenarios and tiny challenges that keep the reader going from page to page.
In general, Kin of Kings subscribes to a 'and then THIS thing happened!' style of plot development - relying on Basen's naiveté to take the reader from one scene through to another, occasionally, but not always, explaining decisions after they've been made. That works decently in the school setting because the stakes are low and exposition fits in naturally. Outside of the core Academy narrative, this approach is less successful. We're at the mercy of unexpected twists, rather than part of a holistic story: from the start of the book ("Basen decided to do this!") throughout the middle ("And then my evil tutor showed up!" and "Now dad's a general!" and "We need a magic rock!") all the way through to the end ("Evil noble revolution!"). The final conflict is particularly egregious, as it changes everything but comes without any foreshadowing; it lacks emotional weight. Which is to say... kinda. The core conceit of the book is very enjoyable, but the fringe (and perhaps primary?) plotting is a little too haphazard.
Is it immersive? Another reason wizard schools are great: they're all about education. You've got professors professing, students talking to one another, and coursework as a way of letting character puzzle out the fundamental rules of the universe for the reader's enlightenment. It is far to say that King of Kings doesn't let any of these opportunities slide. There's a lot of magical, social, political, personal and historical stuff in this book, and Kin of Kings is a little too keen to make sure that it is all on the page. Whenever someone can explain a thing, that thing gets explained. In detail.
That, I suppose, is the sneaky trap of the wizard school. It can be an invitation to infodump. Basen's experimentation with magic becomes particularly self-involved; when he starts referring to things by acronyms, it feels that Kin of Kings has become too interested in the intricacies of its own magic system. As noted above, schools are great settings not because they allow you to lecture, but because they connect with the reader's own experiences. Readers want to share the feeling of being a student, not actually go to classes.
To be fair, the book does a good job concealing the volume of information imparted by varying the explanatory techniques. Basen also questions his fellow students, he plays 'you ask one, I ask one' games, he ponders things in great detail, his friends ponder things in great detail, late night confessions, reminiscing about shared pasts, etc. etc. There's clearly a lot of depth to this world, and the book tries to include all of it. Yet, as noted above, some really important things still come completely out of nowhere. The world - or, the bits of that we experience - needed to be more focused on supporting the story, and less on sharing for the sake of sharing.
Which is to say,... kinda. There's a lot of world, and it isn't uninteresting, but Kin of Kings can tend to be more instructional than immersive.
It it emotionally engaging? I suspect you get the gist from the two points above, but Kin of Kings can be a pretty uneven book. Overall, the plot doesn't make a lot of sense, as it builds to a strange, oddly irrelevant, crescendo. There's also a lot of repetition, plus a ton of 'telling', and and and... As a total of rational points, there are a lot of arguments as to why this book shouldn't work. But... it does.
If nothing else, Kin of Kings stands for the triumph of character above all other elements of storytelling. Because Basen - with a little help from his friends - carries this book on his broad shoulders. He's not perfect - in that, he's a little too perfect - but his well-intended and goofy morality is endearing, and his failures frequent enough to make him 'one of us'. We're very, very much in his head throughout the entire book, as Basen tells us every single thought he's having. This probably shouldn't work, but hell, dude's oddly likeable, what can I say?
Alabell's a little less fun. She's nice enough, but her storyline is removed from the Academy, and she simply spends more time listening. Cleve's equally do-gooder mindset should be more annoying than it is, but he's fun to cheer for as he beats down on bullies. I personally preferred the snarky Effie to all the others, although I suspect she's perfectly placed as a secondary character. All in all, the Academy strikes me as a bit CW: you can picture all the 'teens' being played by beautiful 30-somethings. Hell, even the romantic interludes are fun, if a little overwrought.
So, all in all... kinda. All the characters are a little too perfect, and a lot of the emotional heft comes from telling not showing. But it is a good kinda 'kinda', and the kinda 'kinda' that carries the other 'kindas', and makes Kin of Kings, on the whole, a pretty fun read.
Is it different? Kin of Kings is fun, but it definitely isn't breaking new ground, so, no.
Is it embarrassing? Nope. I think the Sanya storyline is considerately done as well, with empathy for all the characters.
In a nutshell: If you're a sucker for wizard schools (like I am), then it may be worth taking a trip to the Academy. Kin of Kings can be awfully tell-y, and the overarching plot, when it appears, is an unwelcome intrusion. But on a day-by-day and page-by-page level, it features good-hearted, likeable characters, fussing about in an interesting setting. Wizard schools are a comfortable trope, but, as this book shows, it is by no means a tired one.
For readers of: Mercedes Lackey's Collegium Chronicles
This review is part of the SPFBO. You can learn more about the competition here, and our approach to it here.