No system of government or society exists without some checks on power. Even the most autocratic autarchy has some checks and influencers on authority, even if informal ones, because the person at the top cannot personally do every single small act of governance. Such checks on power and supports of power can take many forms, including the personal. The relationships between ruler and ruled can get especially interesting when that relationship is frayed and discredited, forcing a society already under tension further into stress. To say nothing of what that relationship does to the actual individuals themselves.
So it is in Nick Martell’s debut novel, The Kingdom of Liars.
Our protagonist is Michael Kingsman. When we meet him, he has a rather precarious existence. Martell slowly reveals throughout the novel just how and why one of the most powerful families in the Kingdom of Hollow has fallen far. His father, once the right hand and best friend of the King, is the killer of one of the King’s sons, and was subsequently executed for being a traitor. Kingsman Keep, their ancestral home, is now a ruin. Michael and his siblings live a much more hand-to-mouth existence than they did when he was a child. Now they are exiles from court, courtly life, and everything else. His mother is in an asylum, and much of the money that Michael does manage to scrap up goes to her care, seeking hopeless cures. The Kingsmans have indeed fallen far and seem on the edge of oblivion. With a long and storied history, the noble family with clout nearly equal to the royal family, and one which took pride in being that support and balance, seems over.
External events launch Michael and his family back into, if not prominence, certainly into the spotlight once more. As the fortunes of the Kingsman family have fallen, the Kingdom, too, has seen far better days. The murder of his eldest son seems to have broken the old King, and the small Kingdom has a full fledged rebellion on its hands, with a rebel force just outside the city of Hollow itself. The King’s remaining son is called The Corrupt Prince, and with good reason. An action by the rebels within the city itself, in the midst of a job that Michael has taken on, launches him into intrigue and a history that was lost for years.
Michael starts off as a chew toy for events and external powers, but as the narrative continues, it takes an inexorable turn toward Michael reaching for power and action once again. The book’s central mysteries are layered and complex, and the magic system plays right into that. The magic system of “Fabrications”, which are evocations of a particular element, take a toll on the magic user’s memories. Use magic, and you forget things. The stronger or more powerful the manifestation via the fabrication, the more that is forgotten. Martell does an excellent job in showing that horrible cost, and how Fabricators try and get around it. It feels like a well grounded and mature magic system in that regard.
There are also fabrications that work on memory and the mind themselves. Michael’s sketchy memories of his childhood and the events that led to the fall of his father are questions that the narrative poses, and answers. What really happened? Why was Michael made to forget his memories? And how? If he himself has a Fabrication, what is it? (This is a magic system where finding out what your magic is, if any, is an imprecise science). These questions, which have plagued Michael for years, have answers which become crucial to his narrative. The reader is invited to delve into these mysteries and try and anticipate what the answers might be. Given the rolling revelations of how things work, it’s not quite a fair puzzle, but the revelations pouring out are an effective technique to keep the reader turning pages.
Frankly, once Michael stops being a chew toy and becomes active, he is not a very pleasant character to be around. He is fascinatingly flawed. Even when he starts taking control of his destiny, he makes some rash and sometimes rather unpleasant decisions. His often atrocious behavior and questionable decisions do have consequences and repercussions, sometimes really blowing up in his face. There are fantasy protagonists who have been through a lot in their lives that make you want to hug them. Michael is not one of them. In his flashback, even when we have already learned he is a king killer, his narrative starts with conning a member of the nobility. While the real power in the city—the Corrupt Prince, son of the feckless King—is worse on every possible level, the real reason for following Michael as a character is not his personality and actions, but that puzzle aspect to the narrative.
The rest of the characters vary in their characterization and how much they impacted on me as a reader. Some of them much better than others, almost rather stark in those differences. Martell does take effort to giving roles to characters who are not men, and they have some rather strong impacts on the narratives and on Michael. Their individual character arcs, however, are not always that well rendered and certainly nowhere to the level that Michael’s is. The novel is on much stronger ground when discussing Michael’s relationship with his dead father, with his foster father, Angelo, and his eventual mentor Domet. This makes for a quartet of relationships with dynamic tensions. Michael may be a character who does some rather unpleasant things, but his social r-map is satisfyingly complex, starting with this trio and building outwards from there to his family and to the others he interacts with. We get to see that encapsulated in the “Endless Waltz” — a yearly series of social events for the nobility that Michael, in the course of events in the novel, joins.
Martell uses a portion of his worldbuilding to clever purpose—to put plot tension on the main character and on the society he lives in order to generate drama. Like the mysteries and questions, there is a fractal quality to how Martell builds his world. The magic system, as it ties into the plot as above, turns out to be even more discoverable and intricate than at first glance, and it’s implied toward the end of the novel that there is even more complexity to come in any forthcoming volumes. This is definitely a book for readers who like and want interesting magic systems to learn about, pick apart and see where the exploits and arbitrage lies. There are definite levels here of character knowledge, reader knowledge, and world knowledge all intersecting and at play. Michael’s outsider status with regards to Fabrications at the beginning of the novel, gives the reader a chance to get up to speed themselves and cook up that stress and drama.
Martell’s social conflict between Fabrications and the leveling effect of Gunpowder, and how that has caused society to go down particular lines and clashes, has an interesting payoff. The social effects of a military technology that democratizes warfare are severe, especially with an aristocracy that values the use of magic, even with magic’s high cost. Martell takes this in an even more interesting direction than a simple prohibition of firearms through the introduction of Mercenaries. The Mercenaries act in a way that seems a bit inspired by Italian Condottieri, and have outsized political power both within the kingdom and outside of it (the tech level feels like 15th or 16th century Western Europe). Martell takes the idea in new and unique directions, and just as a Mercenary is a major character, the idea of mercenaries and the social rules and structures around them fuel the politics and the conflict even more. Like the magic system, it is clear there is much more for readers to learn in future volumes.
The structure of the novel, which is Kingman telling us the events that led him to become a King killer, the novel takes a “this is how I got here” approach to storytelling, which makes this a novel of process. I find that first novels in series that use this approach tend to be more self-contained and provide an off-ramp for readers who want to be one-and-done. The novel is very successful at this, although the the tradeoff is that the second novel, when it comes, is going to be a different beast structurally. That can lead to discordance between the books, unless a similar technique is applied as in the first book, which can feel repetitive.
The Kingdom of Liars is a technically proficient and technically oriented novel that, when it works, works despite its central character and not because of him. I found that I did not like Michael all that much, even in his low places. However, I found his plight, how he (and his family) got into the position that they did and the world that he inhabits, from culture to politics to magic, intriguing and fascinating.
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).