PALE KINGS by Micah Yongo (Book Review)
In Pale Kings, Micah Yongo picks up from the cliffhanger ending to Lost Gods with Neythan and his miscellaneous collection of friends heading south in search of answers.
The story continues to grow like Neythan’s own blood tree; that initial single slender sapling of a tale of betrayal has grown into a towering epic, spreading cavernous branches of conflict and tension that cast a shadow across the whole of the rich world Yongo has imagined.
I felt we saw less of Neythan here – his importance, already established, needs less frequent reaffirming, though he still tops and tails the book. However, we get to enjoy Yongo’s focus on other characters, including one very new to the reader. In the interest of avoiding spoilers I will say simply that he reminds me of elements of Mark Lawrence’s Jorg from the Broken Empire and Anna Smith Spark’s Marith from the Empires of Dust. There is fascination in his callousness, a gritty realism in his companionship of felons and a hypnotic horror in his ability to call on the supernatural. A strong, fresh branch to the spreading tale indeed, and one that threatens to take it over entirely.
As before, Yongo’s writing flows and draws the reader into his world. There are many lines that made me smile, although one that rang especially true for me may owe much to my current Belfast home as I read of an involuntary expatriate in the north Kivite complaining, “And you people call five days without rain, summer.”
The plot elements twist with characteristic sharpness as we follow the protagonists into a variety of temples and palaces, nothing ever being quite what it seems. In Hanesda, Sharifa and queen mother, Chalise, plays a long and convoluted game that her son Sharif Sidon struggles to comprehend, still less control. Chalise’s pull on the strings of power echoes the artistry of a matriarch from Robert Graves “I, Claudius” – not quite as devious perhaps as Livia, but certainly more discreet than Messalina. Elsewhere, Neythan hunts for truth in a labyrinthine world of intrigue and old stale secrets as complex and surprising as any woven by John Le Carre.
There is much ingenuity in Yongo’s world, not least in his upgrading of the concept of scrolls. Like QR codes outperforming barcodes, Yongo ensures his scrolls contain a wealth of information hidden in the memory of objects. I found that idea particularly appealing as I sometimes find myself wondering what tales the many atoms of our bodies could tell; of the people and animals they had been, of the stars in which they had shone, of the voids they had crossed before they were woven into that unique but fragile pattern we now call ourselves.
There are those fantasy readers for whom magic systems must be understood, catalogued, even supplemented with a handbook, there are others for whom the mystery is the essential core of the magic, without which it is nothing but… but… science? In Pale Kings I found magic more of the mystery than system variety. Yongo builds more on the meaning and uses of the “sha” or spirit of a person or even an object. On the whole, however, I found myself swept through the magic with that pleasantly warm and fuzzy sense of semi-comprehension that one gets after imbibing a few measures of good whisky.
The world of the Pale Kings is stalked by terrors of a human and inhuman kind. At times it reminded me of the persecution suffered by people with albinism – in places where they are hunted and killed for a belief in the magical properties of their blood or bodies. At other times I thought I saw the monstrous multi-toothed and powerfully jawed aliens, sawing their way through any opposition. Powerful images planted by Yongo’s prose.
Neythan remains an intriguing protagonist and his fellow travellers keep him and the story well-grounded, not least in sharp comments they make on his decisions. Neythan and those of his brotherhood of assassins who survived the first book, continue to weave separate paths through the gradual unravelling of their world, like water skiers towed by something greater than themselves, crossing but not meeting – buffeted by waves and clinging on desperate to hold their balance.
Non-standalone second books in trilogies tend to show their characters and story in transition. Some mysteries are solved, new ones are set as the protagonists and antagonists find their way through various adventures and excitements to their starting point for the final act. At times in Pale Kings, Neythan feels in thrall to events rather than the driver of them. However, the journey is never less than entertaining with many more cliffhanger occasions where one is left fearful for a character’s safety or escape. Yongo brings this volume to a tumultuous close with a twist like a knife to the reader’s gut.
There was also one other book Pale Kings reminded me of – albeit somewhat obliquely. Terry Pratchett’s “Small Gods” shares with Pale Kings the notion that the gods of this world are real and hunger to return, however much the Sovereignty might have denied them (or in the god Om’s case, forgotten him). Whether Yongo’s strife-riven pantheon turns up as a tortoise dropped on a high priest’s skull – or in some less obviously physical manifestation – well, I leave the reader to find out.