Kingshold is a difficult book for me to review. On paper, this book has everything I might want from a political fantasy – it’s tinged with humor and features some common but welcome fantasy tropes. The cover is some of the most beautiful fantasy artwork I have ever seen, and were I to see this book on a shelf it would be jumping into my hands and off to the cash register. There is no doubt that D.P. Woolliscraft can market and design a novel, but the real question is – can he write a competent and captivating story? The answer is complicated.
The plot of Kingshold is solid. The King and Queen are dead, slain by the wizard, Jyuth, who holds the true power of the throne and has for centuries. Thankfully, for the people of Kingshold, he is mostly a beneficent ruler and tries not to take a hand in things too much. But when the aforementioned King and Queen start getting into some dark deeds, he decides the time has come for the end of monarchies in Kingshold. He declares that there will be an election, and that those who own property and are able to provide a refundable election fee will be allowed to choose the next ruler of Kingshold. This hearkens back to the early days of the United States government and its policies of allowing wealthy landowners to choose the leaders of the land – a step up from dynastic monarchies for sure yet still incredibly problematic for the working man and woman. Woolliscraft sets the stage well for a ridiculous election cycle (though one that still doesn’t manage to out-ridiculous the U.S. elections).
The principle characters of Kingshold, and the eyes through which we see most of the novel, are many. In fact, nearly every early chapter brings in a new point of view, in true Game of Thrones style, and while the list eventually does end, it is a challenge to keep up in the beginning. Mareth is the central protagonist, a down and out bard whose drinking has taken over his once grand ambitions. He is helped along by Alana, maid to Lord Jyuth, and her sister Petra, as well as the trio of adventurers Motega, Florian and Trypp . Jyuth brings his adopted daughter and super-sorceress Neenahwi into the fray to round out the cast. The variety of personalities and the background of political fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously is ripe for good reading.
But I have to be honest, much of the actual writing of Kingshold did not resonate with me. I love plot, and I love setting, but when I read fantasy it is the prose and the characters that need to capture me. This is part of the reason why I loved Richard Nell’s book so much, and continue to love Robin Hobb and Guy Gavriel Kay every time I pick up one of their works. There is a simple serenity to the way these authors write, and they write characters that feel not only well-rounded, but authentic and in some cases fascinating. When I started Kingshold, I felt like I was jumping into the heads of characters who had already been introduced – that I was missing vital backstory to each of them. There is development among some of the protagonists, particularly with Mareth and Alana, but it is growth out of plot necessity instead of an organic way of maturing with the novel. Mareth doesn’t really earn anything that he obtains in Kingshold. He stumbles along, mostly blind, and sings magic songs to woo people as he goes.
Kingshold also has a problem with exposition in that much of what we learn is simply told to us. Instead of allowing us to discover Kingshold through action and character interaction, we get narration about why things are they way they are. I really think Woolliscraft loves the city that he’s built, and incidentally the world as well, and I understand the need to divulge all of the details that he’s come up with – I just want to get those details in a more natural way. This is a problem that many self-published fantasy authors in particular struggle with, and even traditionally published authors slip it by their editors more than I would expect. And it’s tough! It’s not easy to show your world instead of tell it because it often feels like you’re simply forcing yourself to show it when it’s so much easier just to explain. But it makes for frustrating reading on my, the reader’s, part because I like a sense of discovery, whether its for the world or the characters, and much of Kingshold felt like I was reading a travel guide.
Kingshold is a difficult book to review – I’ll repeat that. It’s a book that deserves praise for what it attempts. There is a clear love of fantasy at work here, and an attempt to show how inane and silly election cycles are through satirical fiction. I could not be more sympathetic to an effort like this given what the U.S. and the U.K. are going through with their respective governments. This book is a hopeful one, claiming that it is possible to rise above the commercial conceits and greed and create a potentially lasting change that benefits people instead of the dragons sitting on their piles of gold. I just wish I had a better time reading about it. I will keep an eye out for Woolliscraft’s future work, despite not falling in love with Kingshold. I think there is potential here, but it’s going to take some work to rise out of the fantasy horde sitting on the shelves today.