Liz Bourke Reviews The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons

The Ruin of Kings, Jenn Lyons (Tor 978-125-031638-7, $24.99, 560pp, hc) February 2019.

One of the delightful conceits of Jenn Lyons’s debut – a much-hyped epic fantasy that almost lives all the way up the extravagant heights of its advance buzz – is that it is presented as an after-action report, a “full accounting of the events that led up to the Burning of the Capital” compiled by a man who, we will later learn, was hardly a disinterested observer. This gives it licence for the liberal use of footnotes, which complicate, with occasional sarcasm, the worldviews of the other main characters.

Another delightful conceit of this epic fantasy (albeit one that doesn’t arise until much later in the novel) is that, while its main character may be a figure of prophecy, it’s a destructive kind of prophecy. Though, as at least one other character points out, it might not be entirely a bad thing to destroy a society built on slavery and exploitation.

A third delightful conceit is its two parallel nar­ratives. One of these narratives is told in the first person from the perspective of protagonist Khirin, and it opens very much in the middle of events, with Khirin’s sale in a hotly contested slave auction. The other still centres on Khirin, but is told through the offices of the shapechanging, mind-reading mimic Talon, who has absorbed the memories of hundreds of other people, and begins further back – when Khirin witnessed a sadistic murder, stumbled over politics beyond his understanding, and set in motion the chain of events that completely changed his life from that of a thief and musician’s apprentice living in a brothel to his (unhappy) recognition as a scion of one of his country’s most powerful families.

Despite the presence of gods, demons, magic, and the occasional (much-contested) prophecy, The Ruin of Kings is determined to focus on the human scale. Its close attention to Khirin’s life and relation­ships is what gives it the greater part of its strength and power – a messy life, filled with complicated relationships, partly driven by a desire for revenge, partly driven by a desire for justice, by fear, affective relationships, and the desire for survival. Khirin is a less simple and straightforward character than first he appears, and the more the reader learns about him, the more interesting he becomes.

The Ruin of Kings also draws strength and power from the depth (and breadth) of its worldbuilding. Lyons demonstrates breadth of imagination and the ability to keep her details straight; a talent for evoking vastness, diversity, and complexity in her setting and a willingness to cut right to the coolest (and at times the creepiest) cool shit. Nothing here feels old or tired, though Lyons draws from a deep well of fantasy tradition: the most frightening thing about this world’s gods, monsters, and ordinary civilians is just how very human they are.

And the world includes casual queerness, too, which is always pleasing to me.

With sharp prose, fascinating characters, a narrative that never ceases to interest, and a deep and well-thought setting, The Ruin of Kings is a promising opening to a projected five-book series. I look forward to seeing where Lyons goes next.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the March 2019 issue of Locus.

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