THE FOREVER KING by Ben Galley (SPFBO 7 Finalist Review)
And we pass the half-way point in our tour through the nine finalists selected by the other blogs with this, our fifth review of the final month of SBFBO 7. No king should wait for ever!
Revenge loves company.
Mithrid Fenn wants nothing to do with magick. Magick is a curse word, banned by the vast Arka Empire and punishable by death. Its purging has finally brought peace to war-torn Emaneska. Only a stubborn rebellion, led by the warlord Outlaw King, raids and pillages the empire’s northern fringes.
To cliff-brat Mithrid, this is an age of tranquility and childhood games. That is until an illegal spellbook washes up on her shores, and she finds herself thrust into a war she never knew existed.
Now hunted by daemons and mages, she is dragged inexorably north to Scalussen and its rebels fighting doggedly to preserve a memory of freedom. Mithrid holds no such ideals. She fights for revenge and nothing nobler. If spilling blood means helping the Outlaw King, then so be it. Even if it means all-out war.
The Forever King is the first book in a new trilogy – The Scalussen Chronicles – set in the dark and nordic world of The Emaneska Series. A breathless and emotional tale of revenge that crisscrosses a vast world, The Forever King is an epic fantasy ideal for fans of Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson and Mark Lawrence.
The cover has a distinctive abstract style to it, particularly in the use of a white background, that reaches out from fantasy bookshelves cluttered with darker images. I did spot a few typos but none that threw me out of the reading. The prose has some nice lines and descriptions for example “fanged reef” in the line “The Arka warship met its doom on the fanged reef.” There are also some well judged word choices for example the “spine bent at an unholy angle” where the context makes unholy catch the eye in a way that unnatural wouldn’t. However sometimes I found the prose misfired with imagery that felt forced more than evocative, or word choices that jarred. For example “emancipated” where “emaciated” would have made better sense.
I quite like the cover, it is quite distinctive and looks great when lined up with the rest of the series. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the inside as much, and did end up DNF’ing at 60%. The prose was solid, although as Theo said, there were a few times where the wrong word was used.
The white front cover that’s framed in black as if the picture background in the front was ceraded, makes the writing and the woman with the cloak stand out sharply. This chonker of a book has a beautiful spine and great heft to it at almost 700 pages. There’s a map found of Emaneska in the front and chapter excerpts of dated scrolls embellish the story along the way.
The prose implies development and improvement over another of the novels I have read by Ben Galley and though this book is the fifth book in the Emaneska series, it is the first for the Scalussen Chronicles and my first venture into this world.
I had no problems reading it without prior knowledge though it may be nice to start at book one. Therefore I can’t say anything about the series overall, but as it is, the story flowed well for me and I enjoyed the setting and storytelling.
The cover is eye-catching and unique. The white background really works. As I’ve said several times before, I generally enjoy original artwork on covers more than design elements, but in this instance I feel like everything works exceedingly well. I found the prose to generally be good, though perhaps with a stumble from time to time. By stumble I mean a poor word choice or perhaps a mistake where a similarly spelled word is used when another word would make more sense (Theo’s example, above, of emancipated//emaciated is a good example).
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
I liked Mithrid. The feisty adolescent thrust into the nexus of world events is always an engaging concept, and it helps that there is a real enigma and uniqueness to her power in this heavily magical world, which Galley handles well.
I also enjoyed Modren’s perspective as the weary mage/warrior caught in a perpetual war serving as the loyal but long suffering right hand man to a capricious if tormented hero.
I didn’t like Mithrid very much, and while I appreciated why she was the way she was, it just isn’t a character type that works for me. The constant anger at the world, while understandable considering her experiences, was exhausting.
This is a story of rebellion and features Mithrid, the young protagonist who has lost her family by the destructive Emperor Malvus. Saved by rebels, she joins in the fight for freedom with her special weapon and abilities as a mage. Seeing the change in her unfold in the pages as she finds her way to becoming a fierce and forceful protagonist was enjoyable and easy to connect with.
This is really Mithrid’s story, and I’m OK with that, because I found her an enjoyable character. It probably helps that I love magic in my fantasy and there was plenty of it here. What was most interesting from a character perspective was how, even in a world filled with magic, Mithrid’s magic sets her apart. Which of us has not wished to be set apart from the group before? And yet, being unique comes with its own struggles, and I think Galley handles that well in Mithrid’s character and development.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
The plot – in building towards a great siege of a mighty fortress defended by an iconic hero – reminded me a bit of David Gemmell’s Legend. However, Farden the eponymous Forever King has far more magic at his command than Druss ever did which makes for a different kind of siege dynamic.
The plot at its core is a good old fashioned battle between good and evil, though I did wonder a little bit at some of the decisions the evil ones made. In particular, Malvus’s scheme to build an army of embittered and vengeful warriors blaming the Forever/Outlaw King for their woes did seem a little inefficient, or wasteful even.
The trajectory towards and within the climactic siege has some pleasing subplots, side quests and touches of treachery that helped keep the pages turning.
The basic structure of the plot is fairly standard epic fantasy, and a well-written one at that, but I had a constant niggling disappointment throughout. There were many times when I felt like if I had just read the previous books/series, everything would actually make sense, and this was what ultimately caused me to DNF. It’s difficult to balance how much information to share in the first book of a new series set in an existing world, and I don’t think it was quite managed here. You certainly can read this without reading the Emaneska series first, but I think that there’s just enough context and history missing from The Forever King to make it a bad idea.
The chapter headings/excerpts along the main storyline give a great sense of the background of the magic system and history of Emaneska. These are always a plus in my opinion.
The novel begins with a big conflict right away in which Mithrid becomes entangled. Galley’s way of telling the story is to show it, and so we learn of some of the secrets the protagonist keeps and the sacrifices her family has made for her amidst another scene for instance through subplots.
There is a momentum to be felt growing towards a major event in the story, but subtle moments can be found in the more traditional aspects of this fantasy as well.
In a lot of ways this is a very traditional fantasy story. There is a Big Bad(™) who needs to be defeated and a plucky group of rebels who are going to do it. The plot is entirely serviceable and even engaging at points, but I don’t think this is necessarily where the novel really shines. There were moments throughout the story that I liked, and other elements that didn’t work as well for me, but nothing that truly stands out from a plot perspective.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
The magic system harks back to the central conceit of Galley’s Emaneska world – the idea of powerful mages whose spell books are literally written into their backs, giving them access to immense – seemingly inexhaustible – reserves of magical power. However, such magic carries a risk as all magic must (see Sanderson’s 2nd law of magic “Weaknesses, limits and costs are more interesting than powers.”). In the case of the Written, carrying the spells will slowly consume them in madness.
Galley’s world is populated with a range of creatures drawn from mythos with a strong nod in the direction of Norse with added minotaurs. Flights of dragons, spired fortresses and town streets full of ordure and barricades make for a familiar medieval style landscape. However, the giant bookships of Farden’s armada, like the Chinese Treasure ships of old are an interesting innovation where world building meets magic systems in huge floating libraries cum warships.
The worldbuilding is really interesting, and I liked the concept of spell books being written into mage’s skin. The various magical creatures were also fun, and who wouldn’t want a floating library!
I found the world of Emaneska quite immersive with everything it had to offer in the surroundings and setting of this novel. Fantastical creatures, almost steampunk like industries, bookships for storage and contrasting original settings/landscapes and weaponry can be found. Character movements and references are easily followed on the map, but they only touched a fraction of the big entirety and planned storyline, I imagine.
The magic system wasn’t as original perhaps in terms of spellbooks to me, but the physical imprints were. Navigating the torn empire and the rumors over the Outlaw King continuously supplied tension and the sense of dread throughout.
The magic here feels very fresh. It’s interesting and complex and vital to the world and plot. That’s what I want in my magical worlds. I loved these aspects of the worldbuilding. Add on top of this plenty of fantastical creatures, a sort of magepunk/steampunk industrial feel, and the bookships and you’ve got yourself a very unique setting that was pretty fun to read.
Quotations that resonated with you
A line that captured Mithrid nicely, as she stands up to the Forever King.
“Do you always speak your mind so frankly?” he asked
Mithrid shrugged. “Why else have a mind?”
Or when some vittles left for a sleeping Mithrid have been sampled by her bunk mates
At least a tray of food had gone mostly untouched. All except for a square void where cake crumbs lingered,
Or a hesitant smile
However small that smile was – more a wince with some teeth thrown in
Even though this wasn’t the book for me, I cannot fault Galley’s ability to string sentences together, and there were several quotes I enjoyed. This was one of the more evocative quotes I highlighted:
“A whimper. A garbled moan of a half-prayer to an absent god. That was the sum total of the last words the woman was allowed before the noose slid tight against her pallid neck.”
Like I mentioned, I found the writing in this novel improved over the one I had read before and enjoyed as well, so I found myself constantly marking the book with tabs and highlights. I do like descriptive writing, so here are a few to give you a sense:
“Two spurs of black rock reached from the Spine of the World like a mother’s arms, forging a small crater of a valley at the edge of the ice fields. Dark veins of fauna spoiled the whitewash.”
“The Tausendbar Mountains had been lit ablaze with torch and campfire light. A myriad of lights, stretched from east to west beyond the mountain passes. Even with the hordes lost in darkness and glare, those pinpricks of orange and ochre alone seemed to outnumber Scalussen’s forces.”
‘For a moment he hung in a place between worlds, where stars dared not to shine. A colossal void lingered below him. The silent surface a memory. For a brief moment, Farden felt a deep peace before a surge whisked him towards a light he had almost forgotten existed.“
“High above the ice, at the very boundary between sky and stars, where the air gave no life, yet the winds of the gods still blew black dragons flew. Three of them, smoked and painted obsidian to blend with the night, heavily laden by equally dark bodies white-knuckled and hunched. Their hoods strapped tightly over pale, masked faces, their armour extensive but light and fire blackened.”
This is a grand world with complex magic and a clash of truly titanic forces. However, I did find myself thrown out of the prose at times by some odd word choices and misfiring similes.
I can see why people enjoy this book so much, but ultimately it was not for me. If you like your fantasy epic, it’s worth giving a try, but I’d suggest going back and starting with the Emaneska series.
This has a more traditional fantasy feel to it and is very immersive. It is one of those books that you can sink into for a few days and not look up. I think it could appeal to a great audience of fantasy readers, but especially someone who enjoys epic reads will get a lot out of this book. It’s a pretty clean read and moves swiftly. A hint of YA seems present due to the protagonists age but it wasn’t your typical YA novel (kissing book) and many of the characters were fleshed out and wholesome.
This was a bit of an odd experience for me. I love magic and worldbuilding, and The Forever King has that in spades. The main character is interesting and the plot works well enough. On paper this feels like a book I would love. However, somehow, for me anyway, the parts didn’t quite add up to the sum I was expecting. It’s a good book, fun, and certainly worth your time. But it didn’t knock my socks off, and I was sort of expecting it to. I can’t help but feel this may be more my issue than the novel’s, however. If you enjoy epic fantasy with a traditional feel and lots of magic, this one is worth the read.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark