EDIT: I’m returning to this review in 2022, after reading the final book in the series. The series nails the landing. In this review I complain about twists-for-the-sake-of-twists; disregard those complaints. Those seemingly unneeded twists are actually vital to the ending of the book.
Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned.
This is a good book. To use a metaphor, ‘Kingdom of Liars’ was like buttery popcorn: not nutritionally dense, but tasty nonetheless. I finished it over the course of three or four days, which is fast for me. I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator largely did a fantastic job, barring one or two accents.
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
Protagonist Michael is an unreliable narrator because he has amnesia. He makes mistakes because he’s forgotten important information. This was a neat trick, which left me wondering until the end about whether or not he was actually the villain.
I liked Mike’s characterization. Michael is a rash and hotheaded idiot. He loves his family deeply, but really sucks at being a family member. He has friends, and he feels guilt when he lets his friends down. He suffers setbacks, and is forced to make compromises in order to not let down his friends. This is good stuff, because too often authors forget to make their protagonists suffer.
A negative note, the author habitually introduced characters in order to kill them, to try to tug the reader’s heartstrings. At points I could guess that when a character was introduced I would think ‘This guy is going to die in a minute.’ And sure enough, that character would die. My heartstrings weren’t tugged.
Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B)
PACING AND STRUCTURE
Pacing wise, this book had a slow start, and a fast, twisty ending. No complaints.
Structurally, the book felt structureless. I can’t really tell if it was a 3 Act book, a 5 Act book or what. The story felt unsteady.
The first half of the book was heavy on Michael struggling to make ends meet as a con artist/rogue. The second half was heavy on political scheming. The two halves didn’t mesh well. I think the author could have doubled down on either the political scheme story, or the back-alley crime story.
Some scenes could have been cut or trimmed down significantly. The dragon hunt, the moon-rock hunt and introducing the ‘knight’ scenes, for example, seemed largely irrelevant to the outcome of the story.
All that said, the author used foreshadowing very well. Which is good, due to the unreliable narrator/amnesia aspects of the story.
Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (C)
This is an intricate political book.
This book’s magic revolves around people trading memories for magic. The concept of mass amnesia allows for nefarious political schemers to attack their rivals in unusual directions- such as by setting people up to take the fall for a murder and making witnesses forget the details of how. No spoilers, but the author had me guessing up until the end and I didn’t see the bad guy coming.
This story has an unsatisfying resolution to the main conflicts. This is clearly book 1 in a continuing series, because the author leaves open A LOT of plot threads. Specifically, I don’t think we ever hear why the Rebel Emperor is freed from jail or why there is a rebellion. These are huge unanswered questions.
Finally, I’d say the plot was too internecine and complex. Now I like internecine political books in general, but I like the plot twists to be due to the politics not random side-adventures the protagonist has. This book was heavy on the random side adventures which slowed the story down. Battling a dragon/stealing a moon rock/fighting a deranged knight were interesting, but random.
Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (B-)
EVERYTHING ELSE (SETTING, WORLDBUILDING, PROSE AND THEME)
Setting: This is a Flintlock Fantasy genre story, making the tech-level of this book approximately equal to the Napoleonic Era. The upper classes use magic to dominate, while the rebels use black powder weapons to level the scales between rich and poor. Also, the protagonist’s ancestor DESTROYED THE MOON. Cool setting.
The magic system was neat. I liked the whole ‘amnesia’ bit, as mentioned above.
The author clearly has writing chops from a technical perspective. He uses clean writing language which reminded me of Sanderson or McClellan. However on a more storytelling finesse level, Martell still has some growing up to do. This book’s storytelling felt a bit clumsy on a storybeat-by-storybeat level. (For example, why is the corrupt prince allowed to get away with murder all the time, but the king has trouble executing his political rivals? Why does the king allow the corrupt prince to get away with openly stating his plan to kill the princess-heir to the kingdom?)
The themes of ‘beware of who you trust- including yourself’ and ‘trusting your friends in the face of deception’ were well executed upon. Everyone is lying, including the protagonist, and it’s up to the reader to figure out what’s the truth, what’s deception, and what’s self-deception. The added emotional weight of friendships being on the line made the theme work.
I give Everything Else: (A-)
This was a sloppy book, but I liked it a whole lot. This book was fun. I like reading fun books.
If it was a tiny bit less sloppy I would have loved it, and given it 4 stars. It was unfortunately held back by the author’s lack of experience. This is a debut, and while it’s not the best debut I’ve ever read the author clearly has both raw talent and a creative mind, and I look forward to reading more by him.
I will be reading book 2 when it comes out.
If the author stumbles across this review, here’s my advice: You’ve got the fundamental writing chops down; it’s time for you to focus on the advanced writing techniques. Focus on writing a tighter, leaner book 2. Maybe sacrifice some of the plot twists and turns for the sake of simplicity, and you’re golden. (By this I mean fewer side quests like fighting the dragon/fighting the knight/getting the moon rock.)
Grade: Fun, immersive, popcorn read. Good to de-stress after a hard week.
STARS: 3 OUT OF 5 STARS (Everything above 1 star is a passing grade)
Overall Rating: Recommended if you want a fun, light, intricate read (How I Rate Books)
Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Political Fantasy, Mercenary Kings, Flintlock Fantasy, Amnesia Magic, Scheming, Great lore
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed: