Jenn Lyons’s The Ruin of Kings is Darkly Beautiful and Deliciously Complex (Non-Spoiler Review)

Any fan of the type of complex epic fantasy world-building found in works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series will understand the excitement I felt when I was handed The Ruin of Kings, the debut novel in Jenn Lyons’s new five-volume series, A Chorus of Dragons. My advanced proof clocked in at 740 pages (not counting the additional addendum of the glossary and pronunciation guides) and is exactly the kind of unwieldy, doesn’t-fit-well-in-my-normal-bookbag novel I want to be reading. None of these 200-odd page stories, finished in a day or two! The Ruin of Kings demanded my time, my determination, and my most interrogative reading skills.

And my friends, I am here for it.

The novel’s main character, a fifteen-year-old boy named Kihrin, grew up in the slums of the city of Quur and makes his living as a thief. Raised by his father, a minstrel named Surdyeh, and Ola, the madam of a brothel (or velvet house, as the Quur call them), Kihrin may have imagined that he would one day be discovered as the long-lost son of a noble house, or that he would get caught up in some magical adventure, but he never imagined that both these things would actually happen to him. He also never imagined that he’d be sold into slavery, have a piece of his soul split away and held captive, or attract the obsessive attentions of a dragon. And even after all that, none of these events explain what the Black Brotherhood wants of him, or why there is a prophecy that claims he will destroy the empire.

Prospective readers shouldn’t be fooled by the similarities of Kihrin’s situation to those of other great prophesied fantasy heroes, however. The city of Quur is very reminiscent of the latter years of decaying Rome, with its bread-and-circus-style focus on indulgence designed to surfeit the rich and distract the poor, and the Empire to which Quur gives its name is as ruthless and morally disturbed as any real-world Imperialist nation. Kihrin knows this, of course; he grew up in the slums befriending velvet girls and spending his nights as a thief in the hope of someday buying a better life for himself and his blind father. But like most Quuros, rich and poor alike, Kihrin never questions if anything can or should be done about the monstrous state of the empire, even when he himself ends up on an auction block in the slave market. When he is purchased by the Black Brotherhood, however, Kihrin finds that their mysterious order intends to drive him out of his complacency one way or another, and the plans that they and so many others have for him will shake him right down to his damaged soul.

The worldbuilding of The Ruin of Kings is an absolute delight, dropping the reader into a fully-fledged world in which every detail of every building, monster, and magical spell seems real enough to reach out and touch. With an incredible talent in describing both scenery and action, Lyons’s writing trusts the reader to keep up, and reminds me of the joy I found in fantasy books as a child, when all plots and tropes were still brand new to me.

The narrative of The Ruin of Kings is presented as a document written by Thurvishar D’Lorus, for someone referred to in the prologue as “Your Majesty,” which describes “the events that led up to the Burning of the Capital.” This is an excellent device, reminiscent of the way The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we supposed to have been written by Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam; the annotations by Thurvishar are a bit like of those in Good Omens and The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I enjoyed this set-up for two reasons: First, it provides details that might have been difficult to impart organically within the main narrative, including insight into the history of a person or family, or explaining how a particular type of magic works. Second, Thurvishar’s observations and asides were often wry and amusing, which injected more humor into a story that is generally pretty dark. I actually enjoyed the annotations so much that Thruvishar became my favorite character.

The majority of what Thurvishar recounts is a direct transcript, recorded on a magic stone, in which Kihrin and a woman/monster named Talon discuss his story, each narrating a chapter at a time. Kihrin’s half of his story, told from the first person, begins at what is chronologically the middle of events, while Talon’s, told from the third person, goes back to much earlier. This is because the two disagree as to where the story really begins, but since they switch turns every single chapter, it adds a great deal of confusion to a story that is already intensely complex and challenging to follow. The Ruin of Kings never explained to my satisfaction why the magical rock was employed by Talon in the first place, but more importantly, I feel that the back-and-forth structure is actually doing a disservice to Lyons’ own great storytelling. The non-linear timeline trick can be employed effectively in serialized television and occasionally in film, but in novels I find it to be rarely worthwhile, and it is usually used to add complexity to storylines that are relatively simple when told in a more traditional fashion. The Ruin of Kings needs no such help, and I found myself growing resentful at the start of each new chapter because of the way my focus was continually redirected. I felt that I never got to sink fully into a story that was certainly worthy of such immersion, at least until until Chapter 79, in which Kihrin and Talon finished their conversation and the events of the book’s climax went on to unfold in “real time.” I am a binge reader by nature, and my individual reading sessions with the book were shorter than my average because I was so frequently jarred out of the tale.

But prospective readers of The Ruin of Kings should not be dissuaded by this flaw; the novel is definitely worth the frustration and extra work its narrative structure creates. About two-thirds of the way through the novel I began keeping a list of names to remember who was who, so that I could easily refer back to it when I lost my place in a narrative jump, and I found that quite helpful. Additionally, the fact that my memory was so challenged in my first read through makes going right back to the beginning and reading it again a very attractive prospect. I’m really looking forward to the second read, in which I am quite certain I will find so much that I either missed or forgot about on the first pass.

The Ruin of Kings presents its magical world in a way I have never seen before, dancing somewhere between the old-school concepts of magic as the opposite science and the newer trend to treat magic as science by another name. Spell casting in The Ruin of Kings means understanding atoms and poetry at the same time, and the alchemy-like work of sorcerers and witches is mixed with the supernatural elements of demons, patron gods, and reincarnation. There is also a fae species, the vané, which are somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien-style elves but also remind me a lot of the Gems in Steven Universe.

That description may sound odd, especially given that the book has a such a dark premise, but I think it just goes to show that wherever Kihrin, and wherever the reader, think his story is going, neither will ever see the truth coming. And that is a gift, especially in the sometimes weary world of epic fantasy.

The Ruin of Kings is available from Tor Books.
You can read the first 17 chapters here.

Sylas K Barrett is an epic fantasy enthusiast and never lets his bad memory for names stop him from getting into the nitty gritty of fantasy world-building. Like this review? Check out his other reviews for S.M. Wheeler’s Sea Change, and Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger, as well as Sylas’s weekly column, Reading the Wheel of Time, in which he reads Robert Jordan’s masterwork for the very first time!

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