There’s nothing that lifts my soul quite like a night of rock and roll. But rock and roll, as I’m sure we can agree, just ain’t what it used to be.
Back in the day, bands weren’t manufactured—they just happened, like a strike of lightning. And while a litter of mewling kittens can be made to sound terrific with the tools producers have to play with today, in the past, each and every member of a musical group had to be a master of their particular instrument. They didn’t have to be attractive, either. They didn’t have to dance or mug or mime. And they didn’t need goddamn gimmicks. All they needed to do was rock your socks off.
In the world of Kings of the Wyld, the funniest and the finest fantasy debut in ages, bands like Saga—the legendary mercenaries at the heart of Nicholas Eames’ finely formed first novel—don’t make music… they make war. Their instruments are their weapons; their axes and swords and shields. Their arena? Why, the whole wide world! Where they’re needed most, though, is the Heartwyld: a vast and vicious forest between Grandual, where humanity has its home, and Endland, where the monsters of the Dominion lay in wait.
Alas, rock and roll ain’t what it used to be hereabouts, either—because as vital and exciting as the band business was, it was also insanely dangerous. That’s why “most bands today never go anywhere near the forest. They just tour from city to city and fight whatever the local wranglers have on hand,” namely tame, home-made monsters in purpose-built arenas that allow bookers to protect their percentages and managers to maximise their profits.
Percentages and profits—pah! That’s not why Saga fought. Saga fought for the great and the good. Saga fought to make Grandual habitable. Saga fought for guts, but mostly for glory. Yet it’s been decades since any of its members lifted an instrument. They’ve grown old and fat and happy. They’ve settled down, gotten jobs, and started families. But when Gabriel’s daughter Rose, the leader of a band of her own, gets trapped in the distant city of Castia just as the Dominion chooses to make its monstrous move, Saga’s frontman sets about arranging a reunion tour.
Frontman he may be, but Gabriel isn’t Saga’s leader, really—nor is he Kings of the Wyld’s central character. Those titles lay on Clay, the band’s stoic shieldbearer, and he takes some convincing. It’s only when Clay’s own daughter asks him if he’d save her, should she be trapped by bad guys somewhere far away, that he grudgingly agrees to take up his weapon again. The other pieces fall into place from there:
Gabriel’s desperate plan had come, at last, to fruition. Against all odds, the band was back together.
It would be just like old times, except that Moog was dying of an incurable ailment, Mattrick was hideously out of shape, Gabriel—their proud and fearless leader—had gone meek as a newborn kitten, and Clay wanted nothing more than to go home, hug his wife, and tell his darling daughter stories of grand exploits that were all, thankfully, far behind him.
Ganelon, at least, would be virtually unchanged, as hale and healthy as the day the Sultana’s magi had turned him to stone nearly twenty years before.
And thus the fellowship begins an unexpected journey through the Heartwylde and on to far Castia, but though they may have some hope of getting there, they’re having a laugh if they think they stand of chance of getting back, because a Horde the likes of which humankind has never before known has laid siege to said city:
He’d seen a few armies in his day. He’d seen a number of levied militias, and too many mobs (angry or otherwise) to count. He’d seen what a crowd of a hundred thousand could look like, when every band in Grandual gathered for the War Fair in the ruins of Kaladar. But [Clay] had never seen a Horde until now. His mind reeled at the sight. His mouth went dry. The hope he’d nursed of bringing Rose home safe drew the shutters, blew out the candles, and curled up under its bed.
Now no one said it was going to be easy. You don’t bring a classic band out of retirement to play a pub, after all—you enlist them to headline the biggest gig there’s ever been. And the Horde that heaves from horizon to horizon around Castia’s bastions certainly fills the bill. But the closer Clay and his players get to their destination, the more obvious it becomes that there won’t be an encore performance. Not unless something dramatic happens.
Something dramatic does, leading to a last act that’s positively packed with action. But as weighty and well-handled as this is, it doesn’t impact the fact that Eames treats small matters such as setting and story like secondary concerns. The novel’s plot is pleasant but predictable, and plodding early on, meanwhile the world in which it takes place is nice, but slight; epic fantasy fans are likely to find it more than faintly familiar. That’s two of the three pillars of fiction, tolerably performed but finally forgotten like the seventh song on a setlist that goes on too long.
But—and you knew there was gonna be a but—the third of those three pillars is where Kings of the Wyld really sings. Above all else, it’s a funny and affectionate fantasy about friendship. It takes the shape of a road trip that, like the best bits of Final Fantasy XV, for instance, just so happens to take place in a world full of wonders and hellish terrors, but markedly more important than the path are the people who travel it. Eames hangs his hat on his characters here, and thankfully, the five friends that form Saga are distinct, deftly drawn and excellently developed.
From Golden Gabe, the conflicted hero, to Mattrick Skulldrummer, the lovable drunk—and from Ganelon, a strong, silent type, to Arcandius Moog, an alchemist and an optimist—everyone, up to and including our stalwart protagonist, Slowhand Clay Cooper, has his own time to shine. And shine they do, to be sure—especially when they’re together:
All Clay felt was a sense of profound certainty, as if things—dire as they seemed—were exactly as they should be. He was among friends, shoulder to shoulder with his bandmates, who just so happened to be the four best men he’d ever had the privilege of knowing.
As individuals they were each of them fallible, discordant as notes without harmony. But as a band they were something more, something perfect in its own intangible way.
They were Saga. And I already miss them immensely. But to hear that the Books of the Band will go on, with or without them? Music to my ears, readers. Music to my ears.
Kings of the Wyld is available in the US and UK from Orbit Books.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.