The Ruin of Kings Is a Fantasy Debut for the Ages

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Buzz has been building for months behind Jenn Lyons’ debut The Ruin of Kings, and along the way, the epic fantasy series-starter has drawn comparisons to just about every one of your favorite authors.

Yes, you will find here the complex political machinations of George R.R. Martin, as well as the staggering scope of one of Brandon Sanderson’s works. Yes, the novel follows the sort of compellingly flawed characters V.E. Schwab is so good at making us fall for, and its unique mode of storytelling will delight fans of Patrick Rothfuss. Maybe you’re looking for a readalike for Brent Weeks or Peter V. Brett? This is the book for you, too.

Yet while all of the comparisons are well-earned, it’s unfair to reduce The Ruin of Kings to a litany of “a la” descriptors. This complicated, bombs-away doorstopper—and the enormous world it introduces—more than deserves lauding on its own unique merits.

Truly, fantasy faithful, it will knock your socks off.

For starters, let’s talk form and format: largely, Lyons tells her story in retrospect, via a conversation between a thief, Kihrin, and his not-altogether-human jailer, Talon. We’re given little opportunity to orient ourselves at first, as in alternating chapters, Kihrin and Talon unfold the story of a life as glimpsed from different points in time.

Framing their respective retellings are correspondences and footnotes from a third source, one whose involvement in these events only becomes clear toward the end of the novel. The footnotes in particular serve as an invaluable element of the worldbuilding, expanding our understanding of the setting well beyond the concerns of the primary plot and revealing intricate facets of multilayered world rich in dragons and demons, gods and great destinies.

Crucially, Kihrin remains the star of this show. A burglary job turns his world upside down after he witnesses a gruesome, otherworldly murder. After fleeing the powerful sorcerers and the demon they unleashed, he learns he may be a long-lost princeling of a powerful (and shadowy) noble house. You’d think such news might herald a new, more fortunate future. Instead, Kihrin’s situation starts a steep decline, as he is buffeted on all sides by mysteries of the past and the competing occult plots of the present. At the heart of all these troubles is a necklace Kihrin has worn since birth—or at least that’s what the various sorcerers, dragons, devil, and deities he encounters seem to believe.

There is a considerable amount of plot to keep track of in this book, the first of a planned quintet, but the detail only serves to make the world, and the characters that people it, feel real. Seemingly every bit player is working from their own aims and twisted backstories, and the action zigzags from this plane to the next. Coupled with the unique story structure, the effect can be dizzying—but a frenetic vibe suits a story in which the protagonist’s troubles snowball with such rapid velocity.

The energy with which Lyons infuses the novel feels both tightly controlled and in danger of sending it careening toward the edge of a cliff. In less sure hands, and with weaker characters to guide the way, the resulting story might be a confusing morass. Instead, it’s exhilarating: a mile-a-minute charge toward a satisfying conclusion that leaves the door open to yet more exploration of a wide, wild, and fascinating world.

There’s no telling where future installments in the series—A Chorus of Dragons—will go. There is certainly no shortage of paths for the narrative to wander (or gallop) down. That should be endlessly exciting for fantasy fans in search of their next favorite saga—and terrifying for the likes of Kihrin.

The Ruin of Kings is available now.

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The Gods Are Awake and at War in The Gutter Prayer

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Cover art by Richard Anderson

The gods, man: you’re almost certain to die with them and you’re almost certain to die without them. At least, that’s usually the case if you’re a character in a fantasy novel in which deities have made their presence tangibly known. It’s certainly more or less the hard shape of things in Gareth Hanrahan’s fantasy debut The Gutter Prayer.

Tumult and chaos fuel the plot of this series starter, as the city of Guerdon braces for a magical war that no two of the parties involved understand in totality. Gods old and new vie for souls and power. Sorcerers and alchemists create their own fresh horrors to guard the city. Everyone else—including the members of the thieves’ guild—tries to figure out how to come out unscathed.

It is three thieves, in fact, who are at the heart of this story. Carillon Thay, Rat, and Spar: the orphan with a dark past, the ghoul, and the Stone Man, respectively. The opening chapter finds this unlikely trio reeling from a failed heist, though it’s not just a simple matter of a botched job—the three soon find themselves entangled in a complex conspiracy that threatens to quite literally destroy Guerdon.

The moving parts are many, but Hanrahan does a masterful job juggling them—shifting perspectives between characters in and out of the city and keeping the story moving ever forward and ever faster. The world and mythos he’s constructed is impressive, promising no shortage of back alleys to explore or sordid underbellies to expose.

And yet is on the strength of its characters that The Gutter Prayer excels as a debut, and threatens to take its place as one of the year’s most satisfying new dark fantasy novels. Perhaps that seems a bold statement to make in January, but this one is definitely a cut above: within the central trio, you have a diverse set of full and lifelike personalities. Carillon, suddenly plagued by dark and dreadful visions, can be impulsive and self-interested, his natural flaws exacerbated by a childhood filled with trauma and a life spent largely on the run. By accident, she falls in with Guerdon’s ring of theives and meets Spar, son of the Brotherhood’s revered fallen leader, who suffers from both a disease slowly turning his flesh to stone and an inflated sense of duty that may sooner lead to his downfall. Rounding out the group is Rat, an ever-suspicious ghoul torn between life on the surface and his inevitable descent to the feral underground realm of his kind.

In turns, these distinct voices narrate a race to an armageddon none of them saw coming. In probing the reasons that led to their own their own ill-fated failed heist, they uncover the shared secrets and competing machinations of the most powerful factions in Guerdon.

They also encounter a colorful cast of side characters—including a delightfully foul-mouthed saint and a jaded thief-taker—and villains, among them the nightmarish shape-shifters threatening to overrun the city and the alchemical candle-wax security guards standing in their way. (If you’re looking for an imaginative creature feature, you’re in luck!)

The basic architecture of the novel will feel familiar to fantasy fans, but Hanrahan embellishes his creation with his own stylistic flourishes. For starters, without revealing too much of the plot, the story employs an intriguing network of gods and mages that should appeal to fans of Max Gladstone’s intricate Craft Sequence novels, even if the series’ respective brands of fantasy are far removed. The well-wielded magic system mixes and enlivens an imaginative world; that, not to mention the breathless action and a cast of characters worth rooting for, make The Gutter Prayer the nearly irresistible start to a new series.

The Gutter Prayer is available now.

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George R. R. Martin Might Never Finish A Song of Ice and Fire, and That’s OK

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

We put a tremendous amount of stock in endings. The concluding paragraph or a novel, or the final novel in a sequence of a dozen books, can secure an experience in our minds, or taint the hundreds or thousands of pages that came before. The logic is perverse: the longer the series—the more words preceding the last one—the more weight we give to that wrap-up. When Robert Jordan passed just prior to the completion of his then 11-book saga The Wheel of Time, the discussion was overwhelmingly about what would happen next: who would end his story, and how? Terry Brooks is nearing on the chronological conclusion of his decades-long Shannara series, a last volume that will have to support the 30 or so that preceded it.

It takes great courage to bring a series to an end… which brings us to A Song of Ice and Fire.

Out this week is Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones, the first of two volumes in George R. R. Martin’s faux-history of the dragonlords of House Targaryen, ancestors to its last survivor, young Queen Daenerys. It begins with Aegon the Conqueror and the forging of the Iron Throne, and carries through subsequent generations, and the family’s battles to keep it. It’s backstory that’s only been glimpsed before, and some of the most intriguing Westeros has to offer, set in the days when dragons ruled the skies.

It’s also a reminder that Martin’s world is a whole lot larger than the events of the book series proper, and that we may be putting too much weight on our desire to see it brought to conclusion. Yes, we’ve all been waiting seven years for book six, let alone the concluding seventh volume.Certainly, we want to know what happens. But does the ending define this particular saga? Does it matter at all who sits the Iron Throne, or whether a Stark rules in Winterfell?

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings ended with a definitive, world-changing battle, one that drew a clear line between what came before and what would come after for the world, but it’s impossible to imagine a similarly conclusive ending for Westeros and Essos. Martin’s world, not unlike our own, just doesn’t seem to work that way: there’s no grand villain to defeat in order that virtue may reign—the so-called heroes of the series may have better hearts, but each has been tainted by violence and compromise. It’s a world that seems to defy conclusions (certainly the Targaryens thought that their reign was an end to history), but admits only of cycles of war interspersed with intervals of peace. Like seasons.

It’s impossible to know what Martin has in mind for the end of his series, though it’s fun to guess (even if you’ve seen some of it already played out on television). The books take some of their inspiration from the real-life Wars of the Roses, so that conflict might offer clues. The winners there (spoilers for English history), the Tudors, lasted for just over a century before handing power over to the Scottish House of Stuart. A hundred years (and change) isn’t a bad run by any means, and those years were consequential for England, Ireland, and much of the rest of the world, but it’s a mere breathe in the grand scope of human history. The point being: Martin may ultimately craft a brilliant, revelatory ending, but the history of Westeros isn’t much less complex than our own, and we’re seeing more of it all the time—and it’s not hard to imagine more beyond that.

With Fire & Blood, we’re finally getting a full accounting of the deeds of the Targaryen dynasty, all of which has only been alluded to before. And it’s every bit as cool as what we’re reading about in the present-day of the series proper. Martin’s earlier prequel better makes the point, though: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collects Martin’s three novellas of Dunk and Egg, Dunk being future Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Ser Duncan the Tall, and Egg being future king Aegon V of House Targaryen. The characters have a tangential impact on the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, but their stories make for good reads even without the connection. Martin’s world-class worldbuilding means that there are stories even in the nooks and crannies of Westeros. Who needs an ending when there are so many other tales to be told?

This is all complicated by the existence of the Game of Thrones TV series. Though a relatively straight adaption of the novels initially, the show has increasingly become something of a parallel universe following the bassline of Martin’s novels, but increasingly charting its own course. We’ll be getting an ending there, though only Marin knows how it will track with whatever climactic conclusion he has in mind. And even then, the ending isn’t the end: come summer 2019, HBO will immediately pivot to a still-mysterious prequel series, another grand tale of Westeros.

Martin has also brought epic fantasy to the forefront of pop culture like never before. Much of fantasy over the past decades has been chasing Tolkien, but the popularity of Martin’s series has created a market for new types of fantasy, rife with ambiguity. It has helped pave the way or boost the popularity of fantasy authors present and future, who all seem to be in conversation with Martin in one way or another: the squabbling gods of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, the bird’s eye epic of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty, the dense politics of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky, the myth-making of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle (similarly plagued by demands for a conclusion); these are just a few examples of the variety of fantasy worlds that have flourished in recent years. Those books don’t owe their existences to A Game of Thrones, of course, but just as the Lord of the Rings films reminded the mainstream that Elves and Orcs are cool, drawing them back to bookstores for more, so too has the popularity of Martin (on the page and onscreen) encouraged readers to look around for more worlds to explore.

We hunger for endings, but maybe it’s time to rethink our reliance on conclusions. Though we have confidence The Winds of Winter will eventually arrive, in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin may still ultimately leave us without a choice in that regard. That would be a little heartbreaking, I’ll admit, but will the lands of Westeros and Essos be any less rich if we don’t find out who wins this particular round of jockeying for the throne? That world is getting bigger all the time, and maybe it’s for us to stop demanding to see the ends of it, and see what we can see.

Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones is available now.

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Revealing Never Die, an Epic Fantasy of Death Gods and Resurrected Heroes

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Some of the most striking science fiction and fantasy novels of the past decade—we’re thinking of books like Andy Weir’s The Martian, Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series, and 2018 standout debut Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft—began life as self-published works, garnering praise from readers and eventually attracting the attention of major publishers.

And since 2015, a few of those self-publishing Cinderella stories—Josiah Bancroft’s among them—have come out of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, an annual contest organized by bestselling fantasy author Mark Lawrence. Books vying for the top prize are sent to prominent fantasy bloggers for review, and the winner is the book with the highest average review score.

Senlin Ascends, the first of the Books of Babel, wasn’t an SFBO finalist in 2016, but all the attention (as well as the book’s excellence and originality) nevertheless garnered Bancroft a publishing deal for his entire series with Orbit. That year’s winning book, Jonathan French’s The Gray Bastards, was picked up by Crown Publishing, and likewise rereleased earlier this year, to no shortage of acclaim.

Rob J. Hayes won the 2017 SFBO for his book Where Loyalties Lie, a grimdark pirate fantasy that earned the second-highest composite review score in the contest’s history, which encompasses more than 1,000 books. Lawrence has called him “one of self-publishing’s rising stars,” and we wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the next SFBO author to sign with a major publisher.

That’s all to explain why today, we’re pleased to debut the cover of Hayes’ next book, the standalone epic fantasy Never Die, set in a world of vengeful gods and resurrected heroes.

Featuring art by video game artist Felix Ortiz and design by Shawn T. King (who has previously worked with authors like Bradley P. Beaulieu and Michael Fletcher), the cover was created with the idea that the once-again self-published work would stand proudly beside titles from major publishers. We tend to think it will. How about you?

Check out the cover below the summary. Never Die releases in January 2019.

Ein is on a mission from God. A God of Death.

Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can’t do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.

Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper’s war.

Preorder Never Die, available January 29, 2019.

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