My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kings of Paradise not for the faint of heart, but its rewards are many. Compelling characters claw their way to the top in a world that does not reward compassion or hope. Richard Nell has created a world as vivid and dangerous as any in fantasy, and I can’t wait to read more.
It’s almost hard not to run across Kings of Paradise online. From the Grimdark Fantasy Facebook Group, across Reddit and Goodreads, Kings of Paradise has cropped up consistent shining reviews from readers across the community. The buzz piqued my interest, so I decided to download the ebook.
This monster took me a month and a half to read. Partially because it’s the holiday season, and partially because Kings of Paradise has so much depth.
There are really three main POVs in Kings of Paradise, but the plot centers on two characters, Kale and Ruka, along with Dala, an interesting character who has several POV chapters in Kings of Paradise but I expect will have many more in the series to come. Kings of Paradise reads a lot like George R.R. Martin, in that it has very lengthy POV chapters written from the perspective of morally-ambiguous characters living in an unforgiving world.
Kale is a prince, the fourth son of the sorceror King of Sri Kon. Kale lives a pleasant life in the islands of Pyu, content with spending his days running from tutors and ogling after the girls at court. As the fourth son, Kale stands to gain nothing from his noble heritage except the pomp and circumstance that comes with being a Prince of Sri Kon. His outlook on life goes hardly further than thinking of how to escape his duties and how best to spend his leisure time. As he enters training as a recruit in the King’s Navy, Kale is challenged to become more than just the fourth son of the most powerful man in Pyu. What he finds within himself will change his life, and perhaps the world.
Ruka is far from a prince in the lap of luxury. In fact, we first meet Ruka cannibalizing a child he has presumably killed. That being said, I think Ruka is perhaps the most sympathetic character of Kings of Paradise. Born a hideously-deformed “Noss-touched” child in the ruthless wastelands of the South, Ruka is raised with love by his protective mother, Beyla. Beyla is a Priestess, and enjoys some measure of respect as the mother of a Noss-touched child. But the world is a hard place, and even as a young boy Ruka learns that concepts like justice and hope are just words. Ruka’s story is one of hardship and brutal reality, and despite his methods I found myself liking him. It’s hard not to feel sorry for a child full of love and intelligence that has been turned into a monster by his circumstances.
“You must take that good boy, and hide him here.” Beyla put her fingers to his chest. “Put him so deep, my son, that only you and I can find him, in a special place. Hide him there until it’s safe to return.” She swallowed and took his lumpy chin and held it hard enough to hurt. “Then you take this world by the throat and you throttle it.”
Dala is another Noss-touched young girl living in the same land as Ruka, though her deformity is slight compared to Ruka’s. Tied up and left to die by her father in a time of hardship, Dala escapes her fate and creates a life for herself living with the three boys that saved her. When she loses her friends, Dala decides that in order to make the world a better place for everyone she must become a Priestess of Galdra, a societal matriarch of the southern wastelands. But to do so, she must first become a chosen disciple of the Priesthood, a competition between thirty girls that threatens Dala’s very life. I found Dala’s storyline enjoyable, but I want to know more about where she’s going down the road. Dala is cunning as they come and I think she’ll grow to make a big impact as the series progresses.
I can’t go much further into the character arcs for Kale, Ruka, and Dala. But the story spans quite a few years as these characters grow up and change, and at times their lives collide at opportune, or inopportune, moments. By the end of the book, it becomes clear how their lives might intersect, as well as the collateral damage that might be caused by those intersections.
Kings of Paradise is deep, wide, and complex. The story spans many cultures and settings – from the sun-drenched islands of Pyu to the frozen wastelands of The Ascom. It was interesting to see the differences in culture between societies, like the Hawaiian-esque, militaristic monarchy in Pyu versus the matriarchal tribalism of the Galdric Priestesses. (Quick disclaimer: there are more than two settings, but some of the other settings are spoilers).
If I have a criticism it’s that at times the chapters go a bit long, and it can be jarring when you get really into a long chapter or a particular storyline and the POV changes. Nevertheless, the world that Richard Nell has put together is nothing short of brilliant. Nell’s writing is engaging and thick with detail, each point of view flavored indelibly with each character’s personality.
Kings of Paradise just reached the audio format. Ralph Lister’s narration struck me as being a little too gritty for some characters, but it worked out in the end and I think overall he does a good job. The book is also available on Kindle Unlimited for free, so read it while the reading’s good! Another production side note: I love love love the cover art for this book.
Go make a fire. Put a kettle on, or brew a cup of coffee. Find your warmest, most comfortable reading pajamas and dive into Kings of Paradise. A book this good deserves to be savored.
Review by Griffin