Kings of Paradise begins unlike any book I have ever read. I young boy sits before a fire, roasting parts of a human child over a fire so that he might cannibalize the dead remains. This circumstantial cannibal is Ruka, and he is one of the most complicated and intriguing characters I have ever read – in fantasy or otherwise. His cannibalism is inconsequential to the depth that Richard Nell instills into this character, which is saying something because the act of eating another human being is one full of consequence and meaning. In some ways, I question Nell’s use of this act as an opener for a story because I think it might put some readers off, and that would be a massive shame because Kings of Paradise is one of the best fantasy novels I have ever read. I can be fairly critical in my reading of any book, but this one is almost perfect.
In direct contrast to Ruka is one of the novel’s other main characters, Kale. Kale is the fourth son of a king, privileged where Ruka lives destitute in the wild, barely surviving. Kale’s home is a tropical paradise, while Ruka struggles in the cold environs of a Norwegian-like land. Despite their differences, Ruka and Kale share many similar traits. They are both tenacious when set to something. Ruka’s goal is simple, revenge, though the path he takes to achieve that goal is anything but. Kale’s goal is to prove himself worthy to an unloving father and to make something of himself despite the privilege that goes along with being a king’s son. And at every turn, they are each beset by other people and events that seek to stop their progress.
And then there’s Dala. Richard Nell gave an interview to Fantasy Book Critic where he talked about Dala’s story, and how it basically took him by surprise and forced him to write about her. That is obvious in the bones of Kings of Paradise, which conceptually seems to be about two people who will eventually clash in some sort of titanic way, and in fact the novel does bring Ruka and Kale closer and closer as it progresses. Dala’s story takes place in the same land as Ruka’s, and they have several points of convergence despite their differing plots. In some ways Dala is the female equivalent of Ruka – she grows up in harsh environs, is abandoned by her parents and forced to make her own way in the world. Unlike Ruka, Dala has no need for revenge, but they each seek to change the world to their version of paradise. For Dala, she sees the suffering of her people and the hypocrisy of an unjust church as problems to be solved. Ruka has similar goals, only his solutions are violent where Dala seeks to earn her way to the top of society so that she may change it from above. How she will figure into the larger story of Ruka and Kale’s eventual clash is something I am eager to learn.
Nell’s writing, and his larger story, is proof that it is not world-building or plot that make for the best reading, but characters. In much the same way that Robin Hobb develops her heroes and villains, so too does Nell invest in his characters and forces his readers to love or hate them – or at least be invested in them. Nell’s world is not unfamiliar. Its shores mirror our own, its people often amalgamations of races on our own globe. The geography is well told, with scenes taking place in the frigid southern half of the world feeling cold, and those in the more tropic areas feeling humid and alight. There is a mythology built into Nell’s writing that contributes even more to the world-building. In Dala and Ruka’s land, the gods are worshiped and feared, and there is a clash of ideologies between older deities and their predecessors. In contrast, the gods of Kale’s people are feared and appeased – there is no worship other than whatever it takes to keep them from destroying the island on which they rest. These details are so often overlooked in fantasy, the idea that the very environs in which a people live can dictate how they worship the deities that have evolved over the course of their history. Ruka’s people seek to survive, struggling against a land that wishes to freeze them, and so their faiths reflect this. Kale’s people struggle, but not in the same way for their only true fear is a raging sea that might occasionally destroy their civilization.
Another theme that runs throughout Kings of Paradise is the notion of parenthood, with an emphasis on the role of a father. This obviously spoke to me as a newer father myself, but there are larger concepts at work here. Each character has an abandonment of sorts. Ruka’s father is largely unknown – he casts a shadow that Ruka never really feels connected with and it is Ruka’s mother, a remarkable woman by any standard, who becomes his mentor and raison d’être. Kale’s father is cold and uncaring, and even threatens lasting physical violence upon Kale at one point in the story simply for political gain. Dala’s father abandons her in the woods where she must band together with other orphaned children until she can eventually find her own power and seek out a new life. I love Nell’s explorations of what it means to be abandoned as a child and how it might shape any man or woman, despite what conditions they could be struggling under.
A theme that I’d like to touch on as well is that of power. Each character, at some point in Kings of Paradise, discovers that they have some kind of near supernatural ability. For Ruka, it is his ability to compartmentalize his life. Early on, he creates an entire world within his head, a place where he can meditate into and create things. It is reminiscent of the “mind palace” of Sherlock fame, and Nell writes about this retreat in such a way that it feels like Ruka is physically entering a different location. In this mind retreat, Ruka is able to teach himself things, whether its learning to fight or learning to forge. He meditates instead of sleeping, and his focus is so great that he can teach himself almost anything. It is unbelievable, but written so well that its amazing and a little frightening. Dala has a similar mental capacity, though hers is more recognizable. She combines a sharp intellect and an unwavering faith with an inborn ability to manipulate others into doing exactly as she wishes – and strangely does so without it feeling evil or damning. Kale’s power takes on a more traditional-style of supernatural ability that I won’t get into because it verges into some real spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that his own mental capabilities allow him to tap into some things that no one on Nell’s world seem to know anything about. In some ways, Kings of Paradise is this triple-origin story, with these characters slowly becoming super-humans that all veer towards one another in what I can only imagine will be the kind of clash we reserve for big-name fantasy/sci-fi action films. Then again, Nell has such a deft hand that it might be more subtle than that. I am eager to get into Kings of Ash so I can find out.
It is shocking to me, in a way that makes me kind of emotional, that Kings of Paradise was in the SPFBO of 2018, a contest where I was judge, but did not even make it into the last round. Had Nell’s book been in my batch, there is no question he would have made it to the finals, and I would have worked real hard to see him win the entire thing. Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the long run because I believe people will be discovering Nell’s work and that he will get the recognition that he deserves. When I put Kings of Paradise down, I was a little overcome. I had a similar feeling the first time that I read The Fellowship of the Ring, or Assassin’s Apprentice. I knew I had something special now that I would return to again and again throughout my life – a richness to be experienced on repeat for as long as needed. I hope people read this book, and its sequels. Buy it, find it on Kindle Unlimited, get it through inter-library loan at your local library. Just please read Kings of Paradise. Novels like this do not come along every day.