KINGS OF PARADISE by Richard Nell is one of the favorites to win the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (#SPFBO). It is a story which has been recommended to me over and over again. I was surprised by this because the fantasy fans I hang around with are a very cynical bunch. If one liked THE POPPY WARS, then the next disliked it. I was a huge fan of 1000 SCARS but others were iffy about it. Here? Just about everyone who read this novel had nothing but praise for it. They said it was the best grimdark they'd read since THE GREY BASTARDS or WHERE LOYALTIS LIE. So, i decided to check it out.
What did I think? Kings of Paradise is really solid fantasy. I didn't like it quite as much as the aforementioned books but it's definitely something that both earns its moniker of grimdark (which I define as "dark, gritty fantasy for adults") but also is just good fiction in general. The characters are interesting, the twists are actually unpredictable, and world-building is solid. This is one of those books for people who don't like their fantasy to read like Dungeons and Dragons but more like George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie.
The premise is centered around three characters: Ruka, Kale, and Dala. Ruka is a deformed cannibal savage who may be the son of a god but is certainly the son of a witch. After being raised with love by his mother, he is cast out of civilized society by a corrupt priestess--which causes him to decide that it his destiny to destroy the old world. Kale is the spoiled prince of an island nation is that is one part England and one part Polynesia. Dala is a beautiful farm girl who grew up on a impoverished farm with an abusive father, when a chance encounter with Ruka results in her deciding to join the upper-crust priestesses on what she believes is a mission from her goddess.
Ruka is an interesting character and reminds me a bit of Kratos from God of War crossed with Caliban from The Tempest--not exactly a very common pair of team-ups. He's a genius with the face of a monster and his rage is all-consuming. He's not quite as sharp as he thinks he is and his only real move is "burn down everything that ticks him off." It's an effective move, though, and it's interesting how his partners keep trying to screw him--only to realize they've brought down holy hell on their heads.
Kale is a character I want to punch in the face and that's a good thing because it's what the author obviously intended as a reaction. Kale reminds me strongly of Jezal from THE FIRST LAW TRILOGY and his romance with Lala is not too dissimilar to said character's romance with Ardee West. That isn't to say the characters are identical but they have arcs of privileged individuals discovering their privilege comes with severe costs and have left them helpless once outside their comfort zone. The fact he discovers he has an incredible talent that can change the world struck me as a bit annoying but I am interested in where it takes him.
Dala is probably my favorite character in the story and I was saddened her role wasn't bigger. Dala is a seemingly sweet poor girl with a story which wouldn't be too out of home in a Disney movie, right before it goes in a bizarre and horrifying direction. When confronted with women who are going to kick her out of the priesthood and destroy her life solely because of her impoverished background, she assembles an army of assassins from the lower classes. It shows a woman with a keen sense of survival and who is every bit as dangerous as Ruka.
I like Kings of Paradise and recommend it for people who want to see a big complicated story with multiple interlocking parts. The book is divided into three parts and really does feel like reading an entire trilogy in one sitting. That's more bang for your book, though, and I'm interested in where the story goes from here. I think readers will enjoy the care and detail Richard Nell has put into his masterpiece and I'll certainly be picking up the next installment.