Tuesday, May 05, 2020

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

My second NetGalley pick is The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell, the first book in The Legacy of Mercenary King series. It’s high fantasy with magic and warring kingdoms, and it had great potential. Unfortunately that didn’t manifest.

The book starts with the main character being sentenced to death for treason and then recounts the events that led to that point. Michael Kingman is a son of a man convicted for killing a prince and his life leads him to be convicted for killing the king. Michael is the hero of the book, so the reader can’t help hoping that the events that seem inevitably to lead him to his doom might be something else after all. With ‘kingdom of liars’ in the title, I presumed an unreliable narrator and a slow unravelling of the truth. That wasn’t what I got.

This was a good book, but also an odd one with something constantly slightly off. Even though the frame of the story, Michael’s quest to prove his father’s innocence and inevitable doom, was given at the beginning, that’s not the sole direction the book took. For the first half there was another story happening too, a rebellion against the king, which competed for attention with the main story, with not enough room given to either story-line. The latter mainly consisted of events that distracted Michael from his quest and added nothing to the main story or had an impact on it. On the latter half of the book that story-line was discarded after an annoying cop-out, which improved the plot considerably.

In addition to two plots, there were two sets of secondary characters that were identical to one another. There were two poor, mistreated boys with little brothers that Michael felt responsible for, but who didn’t seem to be friends with one another, as if Michael led two separate lives. Their actions had no impact on the plot, but they served to distract Michael, i.e. added to the word count. Then there were two women who knew Michael of old, but of whom he had no recollection. Their identities were withheld to the last moment, giving the reader a notion that they would be important for Michael’s life and the main plot, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. And then there were two women from law enforcement/military who were interchangeable too and had no meaningful impact on the plot.

I don’t know why the editor of the book allowed two parallel plots with two sets of characters to happen. Even if the rebel plot were a setting for the next book, it could’ve been handled as background noise with the focus more sharply on the main plot. There was enough going on with that one to fill a book.

Michael wasn’t a likeable character. He was selfish and childish, and he didn’t much care who he hurt with his quest for truthuntil after the fact. Then he rushed in to make things better, putting the main plot on hold and/or in jeopardy. His memory was faulty due to magic, but when he did regain his memories, they didn’t offer any sort of revelation that their absence had hinted at. He wasn’t the agent of his story. He was pushed around by events outside his control; he spends the entire book trying to gain access to the king, only to be denied his goal; required a deus ex machina salvation, and didn’t manage to achieve what he set out to do in the beginning, thus robbing the book of a proper conclusion. It was left for the next book, but with the rebellion and the sudden turn in his life orchestrated outside the plot, there would’ve been enough material even without postponing it too.

There’s a lot happening to the secondary characters behind the scenes that mainly come off as ‘what the hell’. Trey, a poor slum dweller, is auctioning himself off to become a soldier at one point and the next he is in the inner circle of the prince, only to become a rebel. How did that happen? No one even questions it. The mercenary Dark has an issue with his father, but when they finally face, they don’t even recognise one another. Was it all in Michael’s head? Michael’s older brother is being allowed to marry into the most important family in the country and no one bats an eye, even though Michael has to support himself as a thief and is constantly being harassed for his past. The princess is missing and then she’s not, but isn’t anyone important for the plot despite all the build-up, and then she’s absent again. A lot more thought should’ve gone into all these characters. Now they seem like spur-of-the-moment inventions.

The world is fairly interesting, but its special features are mainly props. The use of magic causes memory loss that accumulates, but none of the main characters suffer from it. It’s used as a plot device, as Michael sets out to find the king’s memories, i.e. his journal that might tell the truth about his father, but in the end that doesn’t happen. Every magic wielder remembers Michael even if he doesn’t remember them. And then there’s the broken moon that has pieces falling from it, but that doesn’t drive the plot either, so I wasn’t entirely sure what its point was, other than distraction.

This was a good book, but not a great one. The author clearly didn’t know what kind of book he was writing until at the end. With a sharper focus it would’ve been a much better book and a more enjoyable read. I hope the next one will fix that.

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