Michael is branded a traitor as a child because of the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son, by his father David Kingman. Ten years later on Michael lives a hardscrabble life, with his sister Gwen, performing crimes with his friends against minor royals in a weak attempt at striking back at the world that rejects him and his family.
In a world where memory is the coin that pays for magic, Michael knows something is there in the hot white emptiness of his mind. So when the opportunity arrives to get folded back into court, via the most politically dangerous member of the kingdom’s royal council, Michael takes it, desperate to find a way back to his past. He discovers a royal family that is spiraling into a self-serving dictatorship as gun-wielding rebels clash against magically trained militia.
What the truth holds is a set of shocking revelations that will completely change the Hollows, if Michael and his friends and family can survive long enough to see it.
The Kingdom of Liars is truly one of the most exciting books I’ve read this year. We follow Michael Kingman, the epitome of petulant child, a voice that pops out of the pages and drags you into its depths – that are richly vivid, with world-building that feels lived in, entirely natural. This is modern epic fantasy at its most gripping and page-turning. A wondrous romp into magic, with an original flare, a plot of twists and turns and unexpected outcomes. An experimental novel with gaps in its own memory and little to no hope of filling them. Now, for me, I’m left in the void of waiting for book two – I was addicted to this novel.
The plot, in summary: Michael Kingman, heir to the Kingman legacy – a high-noble family of neutral power, standing side-by-side with the royal family, keeping them in check – is branded a traitor and accused of murdering the king. He’s following his prince-killing father’s – David Kingman’s –footsteps. Only, he says he’s innocent. His convoluted memories are missing in parts, perhaps due to the memory consuming magic of the nobles, Fabrication. We’re taken back in time, through the events leading to his capture on a journey that questions his father’s guilt, one that sees Michael vying for his place next to the renown Kingman and their earth-shatteringly memorable feats. Within this, he becomes companion to a high noble richer than the royal family, Charles Domet, and a mysterious mercenary named Dark, who can wield a bit more of the nobles’ magic than he should. At the same time, a rebel army, under the Emperor’s command, commits atrocities, terrorist attacks within the city, all citing David Kingman’s innocence. Throw a found family into the mix, duels, noble court politics, beast hunts and magical memory loss, and you’ve only just scratched the surface on a plot that kept me completely enamoured. I could not put the book down, especially because of the mystery element. I love a plot that’s both intelligent and forces the main character to use their own intelligence.
The magic system, Fabrication, is the cleverest part of this novel. It’s a power only those of noble blood can use, if they’re lucky enough to be born with it. Each noble can only have one specialisation: from light to dark, metal skin to throwing lightning or ice. Only one per person. But it comes with a catch, every time you use the magic, a memory is consumed. From what I understood, the more powerful the magic, the greater the loss but it didn’t directly say that. I just loved how this threw a shade of doubt into the mix, adding layers to the mystery, creating a true unreliable narrator; you could never be sure whether there were holes in memory. It’s a wonderful plot device that keeps the reader guessing, on the edge of their seat. It’s another whole spanner in the works. There are endless possibilities with this and I’m excited to see where Martell takes it, and cudos to him for pulling off such a risky magic system. It really does pay off in the end.
Michael, as a character, reminds me of a bratty younger brother – which he is to Leon. A brother that needs putting in his place. But he’s someone who won’t give up, despite the beatings. It doesn’t matter whether it’s blood or found family, he truly does care enough to fight for them. And he will do whatever it takes. The fact he doesn’t care who he’s speaking to and will never take no for an answer is what makes him so intriguing. He’s certainly a character with agency – which he takes in both hands and crashes through the plot like a bull in a china shop. There’s little grace in him, but he’s quickly become a favourite of mine.
My overall advice of the Kingdom of Liars is: read it now. NOW. It’s for fans of epic fantasy who’re looking for a new spin on magic and a whole helping of mystery. For me now, it’s a waiting game of whether I can pester Gollancz or Mr Martell for an early copy of the sequel … please?
A special mention goes to the guys at Graphic Audio, they really did a fantastic job at bringing Martell’s work to life – I’d recommend listening in audiobook format if that’s your type of thing.