City of Kings by Rob J. Hayes (Book Review)
One of the first fantasy books I ever read was David Gemmell’s Legend. Legend is the story of a siege and a retired hero who comes down from his mountain retreat to sacrifice his life to hold that siege. It’s a titanic book, even at a mere 345 pages, and Druss would remain one of my fantasy heroes throughout my teenage years and beyond. City of Kings, like Legend, is a book about a siege, and it even boasts a very Druss-like character in the Black Thorn. Add a dash of Glen Cook and perhaps even a little Malazan, and you have a combination that screams at me. City of Kings is not quite the book that Legend is, for a variety of reasons, but it is well worth a read and echoes many of the best siege-fantasy novels of our time.
The description for City of Kings tells potential readers that while it is part of Rob J. Hayes First Earth series, it can be read as a standalone novel. I took this to heart because I have not yet read any other books from Hayes, and there’s no question that this can be read by itself. The plot details the Black Thorn and his partner Rose’s siege of Crucible, a city that stands as the last bastion for the vestiges of the land’s nobility who have holed up within the impenetrable fortress. Rose and the Black Thorn, whose apparent vendetta against those of noble blood has led them on a murder spree across the Wilds, are the heroes in this story where heroes are as anti as they come and there is a fine line between good and evil. Basically, everyone is bad.
This brings me to my first real critique of City of Kings, and it’s one that series fans will have no issue with. This is not a standalone novel. Rose and Black Thorn’s murder spree is something I would have loved to have more context with, and while I think Hayes does an admirable job characterizing his main players, I felt like I was missing out almost the entire time without any knowledge of their prior lives in previous books. This critique is also praise disguised because City of Kings is good enough that now I will be going back and discovering the rest of the series.
City of Kings is largely Rose’s book, despite its multiple viewpoint structure. Rose drives every action forward, and it is her will that puts the city of Crucible to siege. Every other character in the book is either a tool for Rose, or an antagonist. I liked Rose, despite not really knowing much about her or what drove her until around midway through the story. She is hard and world-weary and I could sympathize with her hatred of the nobility in the Wilds even though I’ve never been through what she’s been through. Hayes sells her motivations quite thoroughly. The Black Thorn, Rose’s husband and the father of her unborn child, shares her motivations and does the absolute most to get her what she wants. It is refreshing to read about an adult relationship without all the earth-shattering love and devotion so common in the genre. Rose and Thorn are real people, with distinct personalities and a wary respect for one another. There is more pragmatism than romance in their interactions, and I understand this all too well.
The format of City of Kings is possibly its greatest strength. This book tells of a siege, and this is the singular event of the entire novel. Everything takes place within a measured radius from the city of Crucible, and where other books might devote a few chapters to knocking down a city’s walls, Hayes gives it an entire book. Not even Legend could boast such a devotion to its event. I enjoyed this structure, even with the knowledge that I would have enjoyed it even more had I had more context for the world and characters. Hayes does a beautiful job constructing events in and around the city to flesh things out, while pacing the actual days of the siege in such a way that it never feels boring.
I have one real gripe with City of Kings, and I suspect it is one that will carry me through Rob J. Hayes’ other novels. I really dislike written dialect. Dialect is a real thing and including it in a novel is important and authentic. Writing out dialect as it sounds is a huge mistake, unless, like Irvine Welsh, it is an author’s schtick (and frankly most people can’t even read Welsh for this very reason). Seeing all the apostrophes and shortened words in dialogue distracts me from the story, particularly if I don’t feel that it’s done well. I really struggled with the dialect in City of Kings. I found myself hoping for viewpoints from characters who spoke clearly, and dreading the times when things would shift to a heavy dialogue portion from Thorn or Henry. This is likely something that doesn’t bother a lot of fantasy readers because the genre is plagued by written dialect, but if there’s a common thread among all the highest rated work, readers might find that very little of it suffers from this ailment.
Despite my one big issue, I liked City of Kings quite a bit and wanted to know more about this world that Rob J. Hayes has built. His writing is grim and gritty, and his descriptions of war and the battles played out within it are terrifying and moving. His characters feel real and worth knowing, even if I did have to wade through some of their insufferable dialect to get to know them. It’s an easy comparison to liken Hayes to Glen Cook or Joe Abercrombie, and fans of those big names will likely find City of Kings and its subsequent series a familiar and promising entry. But this is not a re-telling of the Black Company or The First Law. Hayes has his own voice, and it is one worth reading.