I’ve been astounded lately with the talent of the fantasy indie writer community, and the latest book on that list is a truly epic and wonderfully crafted grimdark fantasy, “Kings of Paradise”. This book is so massive and complex, it’s hard to summarize, but suffice it to say, this is mainly the story of Kale and Ruka (but kind of Dala, too), two young men from countries that don’t seem connected to one another at all. Ruka hails from a cold place with a rich lore and mythos that feels very Norse—except that women are in charge over, well, pretty much everything and this causes no end of pain for Ruka. And Kale comes from an island nation that feels very French Polynesian with it’s culture and way of life. I loved that contrast! I loved how both these young men start off as bullied and tormented souls trying to find their peaceful place in the world, and then having that shattered and then burned for good measure. This is a cruel, cruel world and Nell never once shies away from that, something I greatly enjoyed. In fact, there’s only one thing about this book that keeps me from giving it all the stars.
Let’s start with Ruka. Ruka is disfigured, which in his home land, mean’s he’s cursed by the gods and should have been killed at birth. His mother chooses to spare him, and thus makes them outcasts. His mother loves Ruka unconditionally, and tries to teach him to be a good man, to make something positive of his life, but when she is no longer in the picture, all his crazy smart intellect can’t save him from the conniving priestesses who hold slights as deadly grudges. You can see how these terrible events make Ruka into more than just the figurative monster he pretends to be, and you feel badly for him! Despite him doing some pretty messed up things, because we see how he was formed and shaped, and Nell brings us deep into his mind and beliefs, you kind of want Ruka to succeed. Until a line gets crossed and then you’re like: “No, Ruka, nooooo!” But I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers.
Then there’s Kale, whose rich, and vibrant homeland, and his character arc were by far my favorites. We watch Kale grow from an unimportant last-born prince who doesn’t understand the politics he’s involved with, and resents his father for sending him to the navy, to the equivalent of a “peace loving hippie” with some truly awesome powers. It’s a truly marvelous transition and its done so gradually, so in character, that it’s one of the best character arcs I’ve seen in this kind of fantasy series, and this is just the first book! Kale is everything you expect of a pampered prince who gets thrust into the “real world”, but instead of that making him unlikeable, it makes him endearing as he tries to prove everyone wrong about him. One set back after another—and a few truly terrifying scenes where I worried for Kale’s safety—makes Kale so deserving of the reward he is eventually given. Though his extreme peace-and-love attitude towards the end started to irk me only because I wanted him to really tear sh*t up, but that’s just my personal preference.
But you see how distinct these characters are from one another? How far apart in temperament, religion, and region they are? That was a reoccurring issue for me. You see, I kept waiting and waiting to see how Kale and Ruka’s story intersected. How they were connected. Why we needed both their perspectives to make this a whole story. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the ride Nell took me on, but that little thing in the back of my head just kept nagging me, kept asking me: “Where is this going?” Dala and Ruka make sense and it’s obvious how those two characters stories and goals intersected, and I loved seeing the different ways Dala and Ruka went about essentially achieving the same goal. But Kale didn’t fit in with them. Even though I liked his sections the best, I struggled to know how his story was at all remotely tied into Ruka’s. It’s not until about 80-85% into the book that you finally see how Ruka and Kale are connected and one of them finally starts closing the literal and figurative distance to the other. EIGHTY PERCENT! That made this amazing, epic fantasy pretty much the longest prologue I’ve ever read. Normally, I’d absolutely loathe that, but Nell is such a talented writer and so great at world building that I ain’t even mad. Ok, well, maybe just a little.
Keep in mind, this is very much a grimdark fantasy. What does that mean? That there’s a ton of mature content in it and it’s generally, well, dark both in atmosphere and subject matter. Nell does not shy away from graphic violence, sex, or language, so this is definitely not a YA fantasy (on a side note: I love that there are more adult fantasies not pretending to be YA just for more readership. Adults love fantasies too, just saying), but if that’s not your thing, I understand. That aside, should you read this book? HECK YES! Despite the female characters being rather weak (in more ways than one), and that it takes so long to begin tying everything together, Nell does manage to do it a lot faster—and sometimes better—than such similar authors as George R. R. Martin, so there’s that. But I think that some of the character POVs could have been cut to help the reader get to the central point that much faster, which is why I am giving it a 4.5 star rating. Still, this was a truly amazing first book for a fantasy series and I CANNOT WAIT for book 2! Trust me, with how the first book ended, the second one is going to be truly spectacular! And thanks to the author for providing me a copy for review.
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