The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell
So Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell is definitely one of the most anticipated books on my list, for this year and having been out in the wild, for a month or so now, has been garnering a lot of good reviews across the internet, for good reasons.
An epic fantasy blurbed by Brandon Sanderson and a catchy, intriguing summary of the plot got me instantly hooked. Michael Kingman, all of eighteen years, is standing trial for the murder of the king. Ironically. he's in the exact same situation as his father was, ten years ago, who was executed for treason and being accused of having killed the prince. But Michael's memories around that night, all those years ago, is blurry and hazy around the edges. In a world, where the price of magic is the loss of memory, this is sort of expected. The only thing is, Michael doesn't exactly have a grasp of his own magical capability.
The narrative takes the form of a recounting of all those incidents that has led Michael upto this juncture in life, where he's facing execution at the hand of the Royals - the nobles families jostling for power in court, in the Kingdom of Hollow. The last ten years, post his father's execution, the Kingman family name has fallen into disrepute. Despite being the "right-hand man" for the King throughout centuries at the Hollow kingdom, for that heinous act of murdering a prince - Michael and his family face the brunt of the disgrace and humiliation of being associated to the man who had perpetrated this crime and have fallen on really hard times.
Michael, however, hasn't stopped believing in his father, a hero for the young boy. And he's determined to clear his father's name. However, it is pretty tough to do that, when you are so far outside the influence of the Royal court and you hardly have enough money to keep the upcoming winter's cold off your back and treat your mother suffering from a debilitating memory affliction in a medical asylum. His nightly con jobs are petty and sees him survive hand to mouth, every day. Michael however, gets a strange new benefactor in the drunk royal named Charles Domet, who for reasons known only to himself, chooses to 'employ' the young man as his chaperone and also is willing to teach him the nuances of "Fabrication", the magical ability manifest in a random few in the Hollow.
Michael sees this as an opportunity to get himself insinuated back into the Royals' court by participating in this tournament called the Endless Waltz, another quirk of the high borns to find themselves potential spouses and wed into the royal court. He enlists, with the help of Charles Domet and plans to use this to try and unearth the secrets of that fateful night ten years ago - to dig into the truth and clear his father's name. Only problem being, in his haste to get to the bottom of that unseemly mystery, he strikes the deal with the devil - A stranger in Hollow, a Mercenary [ sort of an independent body of freelancers, who operate outside the authority of the various kingdoms] who is blessed with an ability to use multiple Fabrications and has darker intentions of digging up secrets of his own. Naturally, things go downhill and as secrets start tumbling, mysteries get murkier and the dangerous enemies and untrustworthy allies that Michael has forged, only get him mired in deeper into this mess.
This is Nick Martell's debut and for starters, it's a pretty ambitious one in scope and execution. While the whole narrative is from the first person POV of Michael Kingman, he willingly courts trouble and so, the pacing of the book is absolutely frantic. The first half of the book is the set up and takes time to get going. The world in which the kingdom of Hollow is set, is fascinating with pieces of the moon raining down on to the earth in regular intervals, forcing people to take shelter and the braver ones to go treasure-hunting for the fallen pieces. The magic system has a price to pay - people lose their memories. And this is the main thread that makes the narrator so unreliable. Michael himself, while still discovering his abilities, doesn't have a clear memory of that night which destroyed his life. The magic itself, Fabrication - manifest in different forms like Metal, Lightning, Darkness and Light etc - are fairly interesting but disappointingly, only happens in the periphery. Even the big reveal about Michael's capability that is revealed, kind of fell flat for me.
In term of characters, while Michael is the unreliable narrator and he does a fine job of ushering us down false trails, the initial chapters were a fair bit of a chore for me to get through. Michael is impulsive, unthinking and goes looking for trouble. Despite the tremendous amount of soul-searching that he does throughout the book, he really doesn't question other people's motives, willingly falling into their schemes of deceit, thus propelling the plot forwards. Michael's sister Gwen, lady-friends like Naomi and the mysterious 'girl in red' etc are interesting side characters, who sadly don't get so much of 'screen-space'. Even Michael's best friends like Trey or Sirash didn't frankly seem too interesting, too little time spent on their motivations or actions. The most interesting person, of course is the High Noble Charles Domet with his schemes to get Michael into the King's Chambers. A functioning alcoholic, Charles with his set of secrets and wily schemes, was a fun character, the sensei to Michael's unwilling grasshopper, if you will.
The Mercenary Dark with his own strange machinations of why he is inside the Hollow kingdom, was another nicely etched out character. I am hoping to see more of him for sure!
The second half of the book is where all the reveals happen and was an absolute riot to read. I read the last 40% of the book in just one sitting. Michael is repenting his mistakes and grows a pair by then and I had come to like him a lot better. He is a lot more calculating, having learnt from his mistakes and having taken enough beatings by then I suppose, to have his brains back in place. But the mysteries start to unfold and the narrative started to really pick up speed. Which is why, by the time I breathlessly finished that masterpiece of a climax, I was ready to forgive Nick all the initial flaws in the book. Nick totally raises his game by the second half of the book and while the magic and the fabulous world-building are just great backgrounds, the courtly intrigue, the politicking and the action takes over to make the Kingdom of Liars a pretty enjoyable read.
Despite the fantasy tropes and the rough edges of the book in terms of certain under-developed characters who are there as mere props to push the plot forwards, I totally enjoyed how Nick brings the threads together in a rousing finale with multiple secrets and mysteries revealed. Nick am sure, is set to be one of the genre's talent powerhouses with more to come, in this series as we impatiently wait for Michael Kingman to further the legacy of his family. A fun romp with rousing elements of mystery, magic and action fused in, Kingdom of Liars is a great launchpad for Nick Martell's talents. Cannot wait for him to build up this series to what promises to be an exciting outing.