Summary: Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best — the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.
Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.
It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.
Thoughts: There was a time in my life when I used to say quite confidently that I enjoyed “sword and sorcery” fantasy novels. Now I find myself leaning quite heavily toward the “sword” aspect of that, which is a good basic description for Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld. There is a lot of action, nearly all of it involving fighting or trying to run from fights, with the occasional magical explosion thrown in for good measure.
Ex-mercenary Clay Cooper has settled down, has a wife and child, a mundane job guarding a town against dangers that never actually seem to be there. His life is boring, but safe. Until his old friend and fellow ex-mercenary, Gabe, comes calling, telling Clay that his daughter has grown up and gone off to become a merc herself, right into the heart of a besieged city with almost no hope of survival. Gabe want Clay to help rescue her. It’s a quest they can’t accomplish alone, though, so their first step is to reunite the rest of the band, to seek out their old comrades and convince them to leave their own lives behind to go trekking across the wylds once more.
Right from the beginning, Kings of the Wyld intrigued me with some of the smaller details behind the premise. Had the story been about a group of mercenaries in their prime, it would have been a fun, albeit somewhat standard fantasy novel with some tight action scenes, and that would have been fine. But Eames’s choice to make them all essentially retired from their mercenary days, grown a bit softer and more achy with the passage of time, added a degree of realism to the tale that I find crops up less often than it probably ought to. Joints ache, limbs grow less flexible, stamina diminishes with age. All of that can disappear behind a wall of adrenaline when in the thick of the fray, but once that rush wears off, everything comes rushing back. We repeatedly see Clay, the primary protagonist of the novel, make grumbling comments about aching body parts or not being as young as he used to be, and while it is to some degree played for comedic effect, there’s also an element of truth to it that doesn’t often get addressed when the main characters are 40-something ex-mercenaries on the road once more. The realism was impressive, and as somebody stuck in an aging body with joints that creak and pop and muscles that sometimes hurt for no discernible reason, I found myself empathizing with the reluctant heroes of Saga more than I have for many other such groups in other novels.
It also shows that epic adventures don’t only have to be written about 20-somethings in peak physical condition. The older generation still has something to give, and have honed their skills in ways often different from those who came after. That’s a running subplot in Kings of the Wyld, actually. Where once mercenary bands roamed the wild and took down all manner of beasts and monsters for glory and adventure, now mercenary bands are more likely to fight only in arenas, fighting for the applause of an audience. There’s still skill and courage required of such bands, but it’s a different world than Clay, Gabe, and the others grew up in. Times change, and while many people bemoan that change and reminisce about “the good old days” they knew, they had a hand in changing that world into the thing that it is now. This is often overlooked in real-life discussions, and I was happy to see that the characters themselves discuss it through the book. Bands may fight in arenas instead of out in the wyld, but it was the bands of the past, fighting the monsters in the great world beyond the cities, making the stories that were worth telling, that inspired others to do something similar, but in a way that worked better for them as social systems changed.
The characters in Kings of the Wyld were a bit of a mixed bag when it came to development. Some got a good amount of development and I felt like I knew them fairly well, their sense of humour and priorities and general personality. Others, unfortunately, got less development. Ganelon, in particular, suffered from this lack of development of all the Saga band members. True, he did join the group later than the others, and so had less of a chance to get development than, say, Clay or Gabe. But even at the end, I felt like all I knew of him was that he was a black man with a penchant for violence. He did reveal some depth in a few scenes, but for the most part, the story didn’t really change once his presence was added, and it didn’t seem like he added much to the group dynamic. Matrick added plenty, with the drama of his family life and the subplot in which attempts are made to kidnap him. Moog added a fantastic tone of humour to scenes that featured him, and the grief over his deceased husband was palpable. Ganelon… was just there.
Kings of the Wyld was the fun literary adventure I didn’t realize I needed, full of action and humour and a large degree of misadventures and strange and wondrous side-characters. Some were predictable, others entirely unexpected, and all of them were fun to read about, even if some added more to the story than others. There were many times when I felt as though I were reading a very good novelization of someone’s tabletop RPG sessions (I specify “very good” because I have read some attempts at those in the past, and very rarely does the written version come across as entertaining as playing the game itself; different media don’t always work well to tell certain stories), as the sorts of adventures and misadventures that Saga encountered on their trek to Castia resembled things that I have experienced in games I’ve played in the past.
Eames did a great job of bringing the adventure to life, and I really enjoyed the time I spent reading Kings of the Wyld. Though I know there is a sequel, this novel stands well on its own, and I can’t help but feel the follow-up novel would be like the icing on the cake: the cake itself is great, but if you want to give me more of a good thing, I certainly won’t complain!