"We're getting the (mercenary) band back together."
KINGS OF THE WYLD is a book which I have to give extremely high marks because it's a story I haven't read before. This is kind of a weird thing to say but it fits with something that exists as a major problem of fantasy. Specifically, it's very rare we get anything resembling new stories in fantasy. The actual premise isn't all that original ("going to rescue a mercenary's daughter from a siege") but the handling of the story is done entirely with the iconography and theme of aging rock stars getting together to do one last tour.
Clay is living a blandly pleasant life as a farmer with his wife and daughter when his old partner Gabriel comes to him with a request. Gabriel's daughter, Rose, has become a mercenary and gotten herself caught in a siege by a horde of monsters. Clay doesn't want to help Gabriel since this requires traveling across the entirety of the known world, abandoning his family (for a few months at least), and unimaginable danger for a man in his late middle-years. Still, you just don't break some bonds.
The book follows the assembling of "Saga" (which even sounds like a band's name) for one last adventure, dealing with their crooked former manager, getting their instruments back (by which I mean weapons), and a more traditional road trip to their destination. There's some truly hilarious bits scattered throughout, usually directly proportional to how awkward a member's retirement is. My favorite character, Matrik, has gotten himself a position as king but his wife is cuckholding him even worse than Robert Baratheon. Fortunately, Matrik is both far more aware than Robert and also a genuinely better person--sort of.
The book is full of anachronisms ranging from using modern slang to the fact Nicholas Eames even uses the infamous Portal meme, "The cake is a lie." I didn't have any problems with that, though, and it fit with the general feel of the place. Hell, the band's inability to keep a bard alive strikes me as a direct homage to Spinal Tap's trouble keeping their drummer alive. Mercenaries in this world are famous people who are drenched in wine, women, wealth, and fame but who often either burn out or go through their fortunes quickly. I loved Clay's reaction to younger bands who have been reduced to fighting in arenas because older mercs have exterminated most of the local monsters.
The real heart of the book, for me, is the fact it's based around the relationship of the main characters. Every one of the band members has an individual story and all of them are interesting. Representation fans will note the wizard Moog is a rare gay main character and he's also one who was both old and happily married. His quest to find a cure for the "Rot" was also something I found deeply touching since it's the disease which claimed his husband's life.
A lot of the book reads like an old school Dungeons and Dragons (1E D&D, not your silly 5th edition stuff!) quest with lots of focus on the conflicts between men versus monsters. The mercenaries don't make any pretensions what they did was noble or good (indeed, they are uncomfortably aware a lot of what they did was murder for gold--especially when some trolls host them in their lair) but that just adds to the book's hardcore feeling. Some encounters do feel truly random and I'm not particularly fond of a certain bounty hunter character who seems flatter than a pancake in terms of characterization but the variety of weird things our heroes run into felt like a random encounter chart brought to life. I, especially, loved how the characters got robbed by the same lovely bandits twice.
Does the book have flaws? I'm going to say yeah. The villain, Lastleaf, is adequate but the confrontation with him feels like it belongs to a more traditional fantasy story while I was much more interested in the band's enemies Kallorec (the manager) and Lilith (Matrick's wife). Indeed, the final of the book does feel a good deal too removed from the rock band mythos to be as enjoyable as it could be. I also felt disappointed the book didn't end with them deciding to do smaller tours for the rest of their life.
So, do I recommend Kings of the Wyld? You bet your magic sword I do. It's a great book for those who want some easy light fantasy reading which is full of horrible monsters out to murder you. The book is surprisingly moving at times, often contemplating the kind of legacy you've left behind.