Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review: "Blood of Kings" by Billy Wong

I received a free ebook copy through a LibraryThing giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

I signed up for the giveaway because I've followed Wong's short fiction casually for years (not least because we've frequently wound up in the same places, such as Firefly in Amber etc etc). While his style is fine for short fiction, where it's of the essence to be concise, I struggled through this novel.



An in media res opening perplexed me, especially because the characters were introduced with so much telling (rather than showing) that I wondered if this was a sequel. Perhaps I should already be familiar with these characters and the curt introductions were only to refresh my memory. Lady Mildred, a knight and rumored daughter of King Arthur, and her Greek squire Ares, were both novel and interesting characters. I found myself liking them despite the awkward introduction, but they're so novel and interesting that it seems a shame to present them so blandly.

Furthermore, the prose remains lax and the tone uneven. Without evocative language, it's hard to feel sense of wonder at the faeries and magic, awe at Mildy's feats of strength, or grief or horror at the many deaths, including some of characters I really hoped would survive. There's plenty going on in this story, including lots of refreshing twists on the original Authurian legends, but it reads more like the detailed outline of a story instead of a finished product.

The voice and dialogue can also get jarringly modern. Surely this is the first time Morgan le Fay has ever been anybody's "Mom." This despite the fact that she has been distant enough from both her children, Mildred and Gawain, that I could buy her being called "Mother" anyway. Overall, a lot of the dialogue just wasn't working for me:
"I'm afraid, Arthur." He sounded it. "I think the fey are out to get me. I've been having these dreams lately..."
This does not sound convincing even as someone just pretending to be Merlin (which it happens to be--and it's awfully modern and casual language even for the impostor's true identity).

It's not that Wong can't do subtler description. Take this bit from Lancelot's introduction:

A bit over forty, golden-haired Lance looked no less than ten years younger, and his dashing persona and immaculate appearance made him the object of many a noble lady's affections. Somewhat oddly, he never responded in more than a courteous way. Though they were best friends, Mildy couldn't help suspecting there might be something queer about his attitude towards women—suspicions heightened after hearing Ares' tales of certain behaviors among the nobility of his land.

Although I want to mentally rewrite the first sentence to Golden-haired Lancelot appeared at least a decade younger than his forty years...that's just nitpicking. More importantly, I see what he did there ("queer" attitude towards women and the Greeks!) without it needing to be spelled out. It shows, in an amusingly coy manner, rather than telling.

Happy as I was to see some LGBT representation (although this isn't the first time Lance had played for the other team--Mordred, Bastard Son comes to mind at once), it actually turns out that Lancelot is sleeping with Queen Guenivere, in one of the few aspects of Arthurian legend that isn't somehow subverted.

I was glad to see some new twists, since a faithful retelling of Arthurian legend seems superfluous at this late date. We've had more than five centuries of that. The first plot twist, of course, is that Mordred has become Mildred. I don't think switching the gender of the protagonist impacted the plot as much as it could have: Mildred faces some derision, overcomes some prejudice, and juggles contrasting visions of proper behavior for a woman, but this is more flavor text than thematic (my distinction is that a theme guides the writer's choices in plot events, characterization, and even setting--it's not just a paragraph or two of characters wondering aloud). She's a warrior first and a woman third. This is fine, too--not every story about a woman needs to be about *being a woman*--but given this story is billed as being about a warrior woman, I wouldn't have minded a little more development of that idea. And there is one line about Mildy refusing to wear a helmet because of "feminine vanity" which made me shake my head.

The plotting is very tight from the beginning, although things get complicated when Nimue appears with her dubious plans, and Mildred briefly gets sidetracked from her Grail quest and growing conflict with her father by falling for Galahad. It doesn't last--and the sudden, brutal, and completely unexpected way that relationship ends makes Mildred's feud with her father completely believable. Moreso because this is Morgan le Fay in one of the most sympathetic representations I've ever seen of her, a victim of rape by her brother. The best we can say for King Arthur is that he didn't know it was his sister at the time. But by being the sort of man who violates a vanquished enemy just because she's female (I'm grateful that, unlike some would-be "grittier" writers, Wong chooses to show this as an exception among the knights, who may be jerks and may be violent but are not all rapists), he's, first, veered very far from the classic ideal of King Arthur, and second, sealed his fate. Mildred's power is rising, and the son of a bitch is going down.

Some people might be disappointed to see Arthur as a bad guy, but it's not like there aren't enough heroic Arthurs out there. Heroic Mordreds are rarer, heroic Mildreds completely unprecedented. So I was eager to watch her confrontation with her father. Unfortunately, it barely lasts a chapter of this 88,000 word book. The actual war is about 2-3 paragraphs, with a little more for the actual confrontation scene. Then the last forth of the story or so documents Mildred's efforts to consolidate her kingdom. Realistic, and potentially gripping, but not in this particular narration. I did like how Ares, the squire, becomes Mildy's loyal and supportive right hand man--not necessarily a love interest, either. I'm sure it could go that way in the future, but they are first and foremost friends.

As I said, this is an 88,000 word novel (hardly short, if not epically long) largely told in summary. This makes it dense and honestly a bit exhausting to read. I'm sure the style itself could be improved without making the story much longer, just by making descriptions more active, action more vivid, and using more period and tone-appropriate word choice. I say "period appropriate" because, although fantasy, this story is in a medieval sort of world, with allusions to Christianity (one of the villains is a religious fanatic who believes the faeries are unholy) and a pretty solid description of siege warfare.

It's not that all epic fantasy needs to be written at R. Scott Bakker (or Seamus Henley, or E.R. Eddison) level diction--I greatly enjoyed Sam Sykes Aeon's Gate, which is written in a manner best described as "nervously chatty." It's modern in attitude--emphasis on attitude--without being jarringly casual about events. Although mentioning Sykes reminds me: in this story, as in The Skybound Sea, some characters have a habit of just not dying. Wong does kill enough people to give the heartstrings a jerk and up the stakes, but other characters are capable of shrugging off some major wounds, even when they aren't being helped by the Holy Grail and/or the healing unicorn Mildred acquires. This frustrated me, as the magical healing almost became superfluous if Mildred did as well without them.

Then again, frustration was a pervading sentiment as I finished this book. I wish I liked Wong's style better, because the concept of his stories such as Iron Bloom look like something I'd enjoy a lot (warrior women, warfare/pacifism conflicts, and a side of romance for leavening). There is an excerpt of Iron Bloom at the back of Blood of Kings, though, enough to confirm that it also contains awkward writing, and it also opens on an attempted rape, which is a perfectly valid conflict but one I had a surfeit of with the Sword and Sorceress anthologies written in the '80s.  If you like to see Arthurian legend creatively remixed, and don't mind some rough pacing and prose, this may be worth checking out.

Links:
GoodReads
LibraryThing
Amazon
Kobo
Barnes & Noble