Kings of the Wyld is a fantasy book which feels like three or four middle (or-upper middle) aged dudes getting drunk, playing Dungeons & Dragons, while classic Rock and Roll plays in the background. In a fantasy world where adventurers are treated like rockstars, the book follows an old band of adventures getting together for one last hurrah to save one of their daughters. The book knows what it is, and doesn't try to overreach itself. But at the same time, it does a solid job of portraying personal trauma and the process of ageing. If you like fantasy, and are familiar with the tropes, I highly recommend this book as a fun, and slightly meta, piece of fantasy. If you're less familiar with the genre, you'll likely still enjoy it, but realise there are some in-jokes or puns passing you by.
The book is set in a fairly standard high fantasy setting - with the most notable geographic feature being The Heartwyld: an expanse of untamed forest and planes which are overrun by your standard fantasy monsters: centaurs, giant spiders, dragons, zombies, trolls... you get the idea. Though humanity was once terrorised by these creatures, humans have increasingly started killing them for sport and entertainment. Bands of adventures start to emerge, killing larger and greater numbers of beasts, before the sport is moved to giant Colosseum-like arenas. These bands of adventurers are treated just like the celebrities in our not-so-monster-ridden world.
The premise of the book is relatively simple: the daughter of Gabe, the band's frontman, is stuck in a besieged town on the other side of the Heartwyld. He gathers the old band, Saga, back together for One Last Adventure to get her back. Saga was once the greatest band of all time, but since then the members have retired to a quieter, provincial way of life. Bringing them out of retirement sounds like a good narrative, but Kings is pretty honest about showing us how much the group really have aged, and how they're not the spritely young men they once were.
We spend the book following Clay, Gabe, Moog, Matrick, and Ganelon - the members of Saga, as they trek across the map to save Gabe's daughter.
Kings of the Wyld brings a relatively unique (at least to me) perspective: that of older or retired adventurers. We come into the story once they're well past their glory days and once friendships have been formed. This allows the book to step back from the immediate, arguably senseless, violence that we would expect on a traditional Great Adventure fantasy trope, and have a more honest, if not flawed, look at the people and actions involved.
We're also introduced to a broad range of supporting characters: a new band of lovable rogues led by a charismatic archer, the band's old booking agent who's grown (even more) selfish and greedy, a two faced bounty hunter, a gold-loving cobalt. These all seem like familiar stereotypes, but they bring the world to life - the book doesn't focus solely on the members of Saga, and it feels like Saga really lived out their greatest day and then the world moved on past them. Somehow all the tropes and archetypes fit really nicely, and it never feels cliché. Tongue in cheek? Yeah, but it treads a nice line.
The plot of Kings follows a similar pattern - although there's nothing particularly complex, unforeseen, or politically/socially astute contained within it - Eames builds a really interesting set of cultures, characters, and creatures. You're taken on a tour across a massive space, travelling in giant air ships, trudging through snow, burning down bars. It's really quite the adventure. You never hang around anywhere too long to get bored.
Not every book has to ask you to rethink the role of religion in society, or the nature of destiny and duty. Some fantasy books can just be a good romp with some realistic characters. Humans are empathetic creatures, and as a reader before long you start thinking about the characters, and their feelings or situations, even if they are ridiculous. Eames sneaks in some real emotional moments underneath the adventure, and that kind of tonal shift is the mark of a good storyteller.
Both pacing and language are only as long as they need to be, Eames has no issues with moving you on, even if you'd maybe like to hang around for a few more pages to see what kind of insanity could ensue.
A lot of reviews I read for this book seemed to rate and note the humour in Kings - but I've got to stay, I didn't find it especially funny. There are moments of levity or little puns, but for the most part it shows a pretty grim and unflattering world, every now and again poking fun at the fantasy and rock-and-role genres. I liked this decision, it made a nice change, especially as Eames didn't play up the meta-jokes about fantasy tropes so much, and I don't think he ever broke the fourth wall, which I was worried he might do. It was enjoyable but far from the Pratchett standard, but I don't think comparing anyone against that would be a good idea.
This book didn't bowl me over with anything unexpected, but it was a fun journey with an interesting twist, even if the premise itself is overcooked. It's a good escapist read if you know you're a fan of fantasy, but I don't know if I'd recommend it if you've not dipped into the genre for a while - or maybe I would, maybe it's the perfect re-introduction. I don't know, I'm not very stedfast in my opinions. 3.5⭐