Oh, goodness, this book.
I’m going to say a few things about it, but lest this get lost in the weeds: Kings of Paradise is fantastic. It’s one of those self-published books that is just as good, and at least as powerful, as some of the best traditionally published fantasy novels out there.
In brief, the book provides two main narratives that seem, for most of 600 pages, to have no intersection. First we have Ruka, who we follow from his brutal childhood in the freezing, resource-starved southlands. Ruka has a facial deformity that others treat as a mark of divine ill-favor, and his life descends into ever-darker depths of hardship and horror. The alternating narrative shows us Kale, a shiftless fourth son of a king, enlisted in the royal navy both to toughen him up and get him out of court. Kale’s situation is objectively much nicer than Ruka’s, as he lives in the warm and prosperous northern kingdom of Pyu, but we still see him put through a brutal physical and emotional wringer.
This book is bleak. I mean, really, really bleak. The Ruka storyline is grim, violent, relentlessly depressing, and depicts a world and characters whose defining attributes are suffering, hopelessness, agony, and shame. (In fact, the word “shame” appears, in one of its various forms, a whopping eighty-three times!) Kale’s story does contain glimmers of hope here and there, and is much less violent, but there’s still a pall of unease over the events of his life. Such is the tone of the book that, whenever something good seemed to be happening to a character, I had trouble sharing their happiness because I knew a cast-iron shoe was just waiting to drop. Usually, I was right. Kings of Paradise has many fine qualities, but joy is not among them.
Ruka’s character arc is long, detailed, and intense, bringing out sympathy and a powerful investment in his fate. The author manages that despite his flaws, which are sometimes cringingly horrible. For instance, our very first glimpse of Ruka is an in-medias-res scene of him cooking and eating a child, and in other places we see him tearing people apart, or committing acts of torture – and yet, knowing what brought him to those lows, I still felt sympathy and a desire to see his redemption. Kale’s arc is a bit more traditional, featuring military games and training montages, and he’s a more sympathetic character all around. There are some fantastic scenes between him and his father, the implacable and cruelly practical King Farahi, that give Kale some greater depth. His overall arc feels a little hurried at times; the aforementioned training montage, while fun to read, advanced his character quite far in relatively little time.
There are a couple other POV characters, most notably Dala, a lowly priestess-in-training who at times feels of equal narrative importance to Ruka and Kale. She’s introduced as an incidental character in Ruka’s tale, but then, surprisingly, becomes a potential major player in the story. Alas, while she gets a chunk of the story to herself near the middle of the book, and she’s just as compelling, she gets less “screen time” than the other two protagonists. I hope we see more of her in the next two books in the trilogy.
The world-building is gorgeous and relentless, built out of unforgiving landscapes and even more unforgiving societies. There are political machinations and a complex tangle of religions. It can be a little dizzying bouncing back and forth between wholly disparate narratives with no geographical overlap, and listening on audio I lacked ready access to the world map. But by the end, the reader has some context, as the two main storylines crash into one another in a tumultuous final act.
I listened to Kings of Paradise over the course of a month of car rides, and the narration by Ralph Lister is top notch. His calm, rich delivery adds another layer to the weary hopelessness of the narrative. The only problem with listening to this on audio, particularly in a car, is that new sections of the book are placed chronologically by introductory calendar dates. Since I couldn’t stop to go back, I sometimes got lost in terms of when events were taking place. This may seem like a small thing, but the narratives aren’t always synchronous, and there are some significant time-skips later in the book.
Outside of some minor issues with uneven pacing, it’s hard to find anything wrong with this book. The word that most comes to mind regarding it is “powerful.” Even now, a couple of weeks after finishing it, and having read a couple other great books in the meantime, I still find myself thinking about the story, its world and characters. Kings of Paradise is not for the faint of heart. It features the aforementioned cannibalism, along with brutal violence and murder, explicit sex scenes, and an abundance of profanity. If you’re like me, you’ll be emotionally exhausted by the time it’s over. The sequel, Kings of Ash, is definitely on my list of books to read, but I still need more recovery time.