Kings of Paradise is an epic fantasy that grabs you from the very first page with a strong voice, intimate character portrayals, and unique worldbuilding choices. Despite its 600 page heft, it felt like a quick read that kept me up past my bedtime, and savagely set the hook for books two and three.
Ruka is a deformed boy, a genius, and a pariah. He is an outsider in a harsh land ruled by a religious matriarchy. His story is entrancing, it lulls you with the rhythm of his life, his childish yet formidable intellect parsing together the strange circumstances of his woodland exile. His mother’s forlorn wisdom, at once recognizes the uniqueness of his mind, and his unassailable otherness, imparted by a grotesque birthmark, and an indomitable will that has no place in a cruel, simplistic culture. His story begins with a flashforward to Ruka’s brutal adolescence, and then rewinds to show his journey to the savagery that dominates his later life. Starting at this stage in Ruka’s development was a cunning narrative choice on the author’s part, which creates strong empathy for his plight, and informs the future choices of a character that might otherwise be difficult to identify with.
Once we are thoroughly hooked by Ruka’s early years, the tale moves on to Kale and then Dala. Kale is a shiftless prince in an idyllic island paradise, and ultimately my favorite personality, the champion of an underdog crew, and eventually, it seems, the story’s main character. On the other hand, Dala is an aspiring priestess and a child of poverty. She is a loner, and a zealot. While I had a harder time liking her, she was never dull.
Although there is a moment early on when Dala and Ruka’s stories intersect, for the most part all three storylines felt isolated from one another and didn’t intertwine very well for a lot of the book. It’s clear that they do in some ways connect, and that they will interact more profoundly in the remainder of the series, but the lack of interaction was one of the few detractions the book had for me.
I found myself, about halfway through the novel, marveling at how well Nell’s voice satisfied the needs of the narrative. In many ways, even reinforcing the worldbuilding. Kings of Paradise is told with the artful simplicity of a fireside storyteller. Sentence structure and word choice stay in the background, allowing the characters and their stories to truly shine. The cadence of the prose was almost hypnotic, not in a flashy, overtly poetic sense, but in an understated way that kept pages flying by. The writing isn’t perfect. There were a couple of point of view slips, where I became unsure whose perspective I was seeing the story through. I also noted quite a few typos, particularly in the first third of the novel. But they were not so excessive as to ruin my enjoyment of the book. Without a doubt, Richard Nell has big league talent and the gift to bring stories to life with his words. Kings of Paradise brought to mind Ursula K. Leguin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea” and its simple declarative sentences that belied a master, evoking an elemental setting with a tale that begs to be read aloud.
The worldbuilding took some big risks which I think for the most part paid off. The setting has at least three major cultures with differing mythologies, mores, and civic institutions. The novel depicted a deeply flawed matriarchy through the eyes of a male character, without coming off as a misogynistic diatribe, which was a potential pitfall that Nell deftly avoided. It also begins in what feels like a very primitive, rustic setting, which paired with the author’s voice in a mesmerizing way. On the downside, at the end of the book there is a change of setting that vastly expands the scope of the world, and while it is convincingly articulated, I feel like this third act stepped out onto thin ice. It’s hard to say whether this is a change of venue issue, or whether the subsequent introduction of a last-minute antagonist, and conflict, is what threw things a little off kilter.
Thus, the ending has some good and some bad that roughly balances out. The aforementioned switcheroo which puts one character in a new place, with a new supporting cast, and a new conflict, is a big detractor for me. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t wow me like the rest of the novel did. However, the conflicts for books two and three are really amped up by the other two thirds of the denouement. Despite one shaky leg, this was a satisfying conclusion on the whole.
Kings of Paradise is a flowing tale, full of rich characters, that you can love and hate in rapid succession. It is dark, intricate, and peppered with light handed philosophical insights. The author’s voice transports the reader from an iron age theocracy, to an island kingdom’s court, to a distant cosmopolitan capital, and spins them all together into a cohesive whole. This is a wonderfully engrossing book that will suck you in, a story that sets the groundwork for an epic, and yet deeply personal fantasy series.