Kings of the Wyld is a book I’d seen kicking around on social media – mostly in the circles of grimdark – but one to which I really hadn’t paid much attention. However, when an unexpected copy arrived in my mailbox, complete with a Canadian flag sticker on the front, the promise of “brazen fun and a rock & roll sensibility” from Sebastien de Castell on the back, and a cover blurb with a definite Expendables / Taken ring to it . . . well, I was suddenly intrigued.
While I can see the grimdark angle, I’m thinking we need a new category of fantasy for the likes of Andy Remic, Mark Smylie, and (now) Nicholas Eames. I’m going to coin it maturesmirk and see if that sticks.
What I’m talking about is an evolution of the epic fantasy novel, with characters, stories, and an overall tone that have grown up alongside long-time readers like myself. The teams of adventurers are still there; the enchanted forests are still prevalent; magical weapons still abound; and there are still elves, centaurs, dwarves, and dragons to be found. Unlike the stripped-down stories of grimdark, however, everything that defined epic fantasy in the 80s and 90s is still there – just with a new perspective. These maturesmirk stories never descend into parody or mockery, but they do poke fun at their own tropes and clichés, winking-and-nodding to the reader, even as they demonstrate a fearless, almost manic urge to be edgy, violent, profane, and sometimes even a bit kinky.
Kings of the Wyld does everything right. It has a solid story, fantastic characters, real imagination, and a killer sense of humor. Instead of being a save-the-world or complete-the-quest kind of story, it’s a simple tale of a washed-up mercenary who is desperate to get the old band back together to rescue his daughter from a monstrous horde. Although Rose represents a goal or a destination, the story is more about the band, their shared history, and their relationships with one another. It’s a story of friendships, alliances, and even betrayals, with a band of men driven by loves lost, broken, and distant. Gabriel is desperate to rescue his daughter and avoid his ex-wife, while Clay is heartbroken to be leaving his own wife and daughter behind. Moog is still haunted by the loss of his husband, while Matrick is eager to escape his cuckold harpy of a wife. As for Ganelon, the only reason he doesn’t have a wife or daughter driving him is because he was abandoned by his friends years ago, a man-of-stone in a Gorgon prison.
In many ways, this is the equivalent of an epic fantasy road trip, an often-funny experience of male bonding and opportunistic heroics. Sure, the band gets robbed (twice) by an all-female gang of thieves and falls prey to an awkward band of cannibals, but they also take down a monstrous chimera, an angry dragon, and a legitimate giant. Along the way they hitch a ride on a magical airship, suffer through Moog’s misfiring magic, and get hooked up with a remnant (most certainly not a zombie), a winged bounty hunter (with a split-personality), and a two-headed ettin (one of which lies to keep up the spirits of its blind brother).
Nicholas Eames knows how to write and, more importantly, he knows how to pace and structure a novel. He mixes action and humor in equal measure, and weaves genuine emotion into the heroics. It’s a fun novel, but one where sorrow and melancholy are always lurking just under the narrative. I almost hate to say it, but it’s a kick-ass rollercoaster of epic fantasy heroics . . . with heart. I loved the characters, loved the journey, and even loved the climax (where, all too often, grimdark falls short for me). As maturesmirk epics go, Kings of the Wyld is a fantastically fun read, from beginning to end, and I am already looking forward to the sequel.