Garn once boasted five great kingdoms – until Ithrace was betrayed. Its royal family, the flame-haired Fairmanes, was not saved even by its affinity with fire: every one of them was executed by the King of Sandura. Now four kingdoms remain, out of balance and on the brink of war. But there are whispers that a newborn Ithraci heir may have been smuggled away… Terrified, the four kings place a bounty on the child’s head, lest the boy grow up with revenge in his heart.
I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of King of Ashes. I loved Magician, the first book in Feist’s Riftwar Cycle. Magician is beautifully, delicately written, by an expert wordsmith, who deeply understands plot and character. I would go so far as to call it genre-defining. It’s one of my favourite books of all time. I’ve recommended it to any number of people over the years, raved about it, even. It’s about as good an example of fantasy writing as you’re going to find. So, I picked up King of Ashes with, if not some expectation of greatness, definitely a sense that I was in good hands. I was excited.
And I’m sorry to have to say, I really didn’t like it. I can’t actually believe the two books were written by the same person.
The premise of the story is good: the King is betrayed, his family murdered, and only his infant son escapes to return someday and reclaim his throne. Sounds pretty good, right? I’ll buy into that. A little unoriginal, perhaps, but in the right hands the idea has promise. Unfortunately, while the plot had enough meat in it to keep me reading to the end, that promise never materialises into a solid book.
For some reason, there was simply no tension or suspense. I think the writer tried to drum some up by focusing on the relationship between the characters, but the events themselves were all too obvious. There were few surprises, no cliff hangers, and nothing momentuous. You’re never on the edge of your seat, it’s a smooth ride all the way through.
I found the Prologue engaging, and I thought the character of Dumarch was well-drawn. He had a certain amount of unexpected depth. He was complex, and not at all what he first appeared. A twisty-turny sort of person, who keeps things interesting. I never could decide whether he was on the side of good or evil, which I think is excellent writing. However, at least in this book, he’s just a bit player.
The characters around whom the story revolves, Hatu, Hava, Donte, and Declan, are nowhere near as interesting or complex. They simply never became “people” for me. Despite the constant flashbacks to Hatu’s childhood, I had no idea what made him tick. What are his likes and dislikes? What are his interests? What makes him angry, or happy, or sad? As far as I could tell, his likes seemed to be Hava’s body, and everything seemed to make him angry (for no reason).
And that was another problem: the book became a bit of a trouser-twitcher. If I have to hear another woman being described as “lithe”, I may vomit. I’m not adverse to sex in a book, but I think the constant focus on what gave a 16-year old boy an erection was, quite frankly, disturbing. The testimonial from the Guardian called it a “guilty pleasure”, and I’m afraid my first thought was “maybe if you’re a pervert”…
Then there was the treatment of Hava’s time learning to work as a prostitute, which was just cold. I find it impossible to believe any 16-year old girl, who was forced to have sex with strangers, could be so blasé about the whole experience. There was a missed opportunity for some real emotional depth, which the whole book was sadly lacking. If anything, her descriptions of being forced into prostitution seemed to titillate the other characters; I found that also quite disturbing. At best, it was clumsy.
The thing is, the problem here wasn’t the lack of real characterisation, or the things I found disturbing. The book was let down by the writing. There was little an almost complete lack of descriptive language, and whether because of that, or a lack of visualisation, the different areas of the world seemed to have no real differences in culture, language, or any other defining aspects. It was a cardboard stage. One of the wonderful things about a fantasy novel is losing yourself in another world, and when that’s done well, I would challenge any other genre of literature to produce more enjoyable and deeply loved books. Think the Northern Lights trilogy, or Magician, even. King of Ashes just had no sense of place.
Then, rather than show the reader the emotions of the characters, give us a sense of who they are through their actions, we were told. We were given exact descriptions of what they looked like, and every thought that went through their minds. Quite often, the same thoughts, over and over again. There was no opportunity for the reader to use their imagination, and it became repetitive.
The sad thing is, I think that with a bit of judicious editing this book could have been very good. However, as it stands, I’m struggling to find anything I liked about it. I would go so far as to wonder whether it was ghost-written, and if Feist himself ever actually saw it. Surely, this wasn’t written by the same person as the Riftworld cycle?