Author: D. P. Woolliscroft
Series: Wildfire Cycle Book One
Publication Date: April 2018
Regicide, politics, assassinations, pirates, magic, demons, and giant draco-turtles are just taste of what’s in store for you in this solid and entertaining self-published debut from D. P. Woolliscroft. Kingshold made it to the semi-finalist round in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blogg Off (#SPFBO) hosted by author Mark Lawrence and it’s easy to understand why. Offering a fresh take on revolution and dynastic change in fantasy literature this first book in the Wildfire Cycle sets the stage for an imaginative and rousing new series.
I read Kingshold back in September as part of Self-Published Fantasy Month here on the blog but didn’t get a chance to write up my review. It made my list of favorite reads for 2018 though and I’ve been wanting to be sure to review it even if the review came late. Given that it’s been about four months this review may not be as good and detailed as I’d prefer. That’s nobody’s fault but mine.
THE KING IS DEAD.
LONG LIVE THE PEOPLE.
Mareth is a Bard, a serial underachiever, a professional drunk, and general disappointment to his father. Despite this, Mareth has one thing going for him. He can smell opportunity. The king is dead and an election for the new Lord Protector has been called. If he plays his cards right, if he can sing a story that will put the right person in that chair, his future fame and drinking money is all but assured. But, alas, it turns out Mareth has a conscience after all.
Neenahwi is the daughter of Jyuth, the ancient wizard who founded the Kingdom of Edland and she is not happy. It’s not just that her father was the one who killed the king, or that he didn’t tell her about his plans. She’s not happy because her father is leaving, slinking off into retirement and now she has to clean up his mess.
Alana is a servant at the palace and the unfortunate soul to draw the short straw to attend to Jyuth. Alana knows that intelligence and curiosity aren’t valued in someone of her station. But sometimes she can’t help herself. And so. she finds herself drawn into the wizard’s schemes, and worst of all, coming up with her own plans.
Chance brings this unlikely band together to battle through civil unrest, assassinations, political machinations, pirates and monsters, all for a common cause that they know, deep down, has no chance of succeeding – bringing hope to the people of Kingshold.
Let me add a few more details not mentioned in the blurb above. All this is basically laid out in the first chapter or two so these are very minor spoilers. Jyuth (ancient wizard who founded Kingshold) has killed the king and queen. He apparently does this every so many generations when the monarchs get to screwing up really, really, bad. Each time he selects a new monarch and begins a new dynasty. This time he’s had enough and has decided maybe he doesn’t make the best choices, or maybe its inevitable that monarchies go bad after the first few generations. Either way he’s now decided to institute a republic with a new Lord Protector elected from the populace. Anyone may stand for election, but to vote you have to put up 1000 gold crowns held on deposit by Jyuth until after the election. What follows is the story of how this city and nation rise up to choose their leader and fend off pressures from abroad.
I really only had two issues with Kingshold and I’m gonna talk about them first to get them out of the way.
I thoroughly enjoyed Kingshold but I have to admit it was hard to get into at first. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but the start of the book was a little slow, which seems like an odd thing to say since the opening chapter deals with the death of the city’s ruling king and queen. But yeah it took a little while to really get going. I say this in case you’re a reader who sets a book down if it doesn’t grab you quick. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it often is a good indicator the rest of a book may be no different. Kingshold on the other hand does pick up the pace and once it does things really get interesting.
The second thing that bugged me a little in Kingshold was the use of some modern anachronisms, specifically words or turns of phrase that just seemed out of place. The first time I noticed it was on page 3 with the use of “stogy” for a cigar or other item to smoke. Another was the use of “style points” to describe someone’s attempt to get away from a charging juggernaut, likening it to a dance. These are just two examples, and while the book isn’t filled with anachronisms like these they would pop up here and there and it kind of made me skip a beat.
Now, I know there’s an argument to be had that this is fantasy and you can do whatever you like with it (for the most part), and that characters in fantasy settings probably wouldn’t use half the phrases we do because they’d have their own that match what would be their unique languages, and really the idea is that what we’re reading should be thought of as more of a translation from their language to ours so the author uses our phrases to convey meaning…yeah I get that. At the same time there really are times when using what feels like a modern phrase just seems out of place. Again, the book isn’t filled with them, but they did make me pause a bit when reading.
So what did I like? Well…
The Overall Plot
I mean this one seems like a no-brainer, if you like a book you probably liked the plot. What I really liked about it was the idea of overthrowing a monarchy and replacing it with a republic…and all the turmoil that would inevitably ensue. I’m sure other authors have tackled this topic in fantasy but I haven’t read them. This was new and fresh for me and a welcome change to the usual “the king is dead, long live the king” manner of succession.
Woolliscroft doesn’t make the transition happen easily. I mean otherwise we wouldn’t have a story. There’s the expected political maneuvering – this is very much a political fantasy – characters immediately put their name in the hat to run for Lord Protector and begin the dirty work of attracting followers and votes. Those running for office not only have to fight for support and votes, they have to survive street brawls and assassination attempts and all the civil discord expected when the old guard is brought down and others want to step in to fill the void. Soon it isn’t just the elites, those who are accustomed to the title “Lord” who believe they should hold power. Before long the people begin to wonder what it might be like to wrest that power for themselves, with one of their own as their representative. Well then things really do begin to get interesting.
All of the political infighting in the city of Kingshold occurs within a larger though less explored narrative of the wider world. Woolliscroft gives us just enough information about the other kingdoms and empires that inhabit the world to whet our appetites for the larger story sure to come in later books. By the end some of those other realms begin to play a part in the story of Kingshold in pleasant and surprising ways. Oh…and did I mention pirates!?! Yeah…there are pirates! And one big scene devoted to them was one of my favorites in the book…a city wide pirate…with a…well…I don’t want to give anything more away.
But mostly this story plays out in the city of Kingshold and it revolves around the coming election and the efforts some will go to in order to be elected. Like I said, political maneuvering, street brawls, assassinations; the good stuff. This where we get to the second thing I liked about Kingshold…
There’s a range of great characters in this story. At first they seem a little hard to keep up with but there’s a glossary in the back to help you keep track. And really there’s only a few we follow as the story is told from their POV. Inevitably you’ll like one more than another. My favorite was Mareth, the bard. He probably has the most developed story arc and character growth. Truth be told at first he isn’t very likable. Or at least you could say you could be disinterested in him. He’s a down on his luck bard, drunk more often than not, past his prime, and living what little he can on past glories. As the story progresses his character starts to bloom into something more, but he keeps some of that rough edge he had to begin with.
Neenahwi is the mage Jyuth’s daughter. Well, adopted daughter but daughter no less. She is a mage herself though not nearly as powerful as her father. She is forced to step-up now that her father has announced he’s going into a form of retirement. She’s angry about it and makes her feelings known. But she doesn’t let that stop her from trying to help in the turmoil that’s coming to Kingshold.
Alana is a young girl who has landed a job in the palace and whether by good luck or ill is tasked as Jyuth’s servant. She’s smart, courageous, and wise beyond her years. What’s more she has a bit of pluck, all of which helps her as she soon finds herself in the midst of palace intrigue and political campaigning.
Though we get occasional glimpses of story line from other perspectives it is these three who drive most of the plot and their POV we see the narrative through. They kind of form a triumvirate of views, one from the nobility, one from the peasants, and one who sort of bridges the space between the two. That’s not an exact representation but it’s close in terms of where the characters are at in their lives.
You might think there isn’t much in the way of world building in this novel since it’s set mostly just within the city of Kingshold, but you’d be wrong. As I mentioned above, Woolliscroft does explore the larger world. There are the mountain dwarves just outside of the city, and Kingshold’s rival empire Pyrfew. These two get the majority of the additional page time not devoted to Kingshold itself, and both play a significant role in the story even if not seen at first. Both nations complicate matters for those in Kingshold and throw uncertainty into the mix of the political chaos of the election.
But where the book shines in its world building is the exploration of Kingshold itself. We get to explore the city from top to bottom, from palace to slums, and each ward in between. We encounter characters from different wards and districts each of whom has had their life shaped by the place they live. The various districts of the city introduce us to the nobility, the guilds, and the common people. It is in the way they interact (or don’t interact) that provides part of the overriding tension in the outcome of the election, who will stand for office and who will vote.
The various guilds in Kingshold provide nice bit of depth to the story and to the world that is the city. And it’s one of these guilds that is my next favorite part of the book…
The Hollow Syndicate
The Hollow Syndicate is a guild like no other for it is a group of murderers for hire…an assassins guild! I loved every time this group found a spot on the page. A semi-official or perhaps unofficial group that maintains the power and respect due to any legitimate guild organization. If someone takes out a contract with the Hollow Syndicate it’s considered a legal transaction. You want to murder someone and get away with it…hire the Hollow Syndicate. Any suspicious death could be due to their actions and when candidates for Lord Protector begin to die you can be sure The Hollow Syndicate is suspected. They are led by Lady Chalice (love that name btw), a female assassin nobody, not even the ruling nobility wants to cross. The Syndicate is always lurking in the background, acting in secret most of the time and then leaping onto the page in a flash to vanish into the background again. I wanted more of this guild and hope they appear in future books.
It did take me a bit to get into this novel but once I did I was hooked. With a fresh take on regime change in fantasy, characters to admire, a city brimming with districts to explore, and action enough to keep you turning the page for more, Kingshold won’t disappoint. I’m looking forward to more from Woolliscroft in this series, and I’m in luck because book 1.5 Tales of Kingshold is already out, offering a mix of novelettes and short stories adding depth to the characters and events just introduced. I expect more great things from Woolliscroft in the coming years.
Rating: 4 – 4.5 Stars (I had a hard time choosing so maybe we go with 4.25)