Book Review: Kings of the Wyld

Last week, I posted about my nascent querying process. I made reference to Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames as one of my two “comp titles,” because every proper query must include two titles that your book is exactly the same as, but different from. It’s The Cat in the Hat mixed with Debbie Does Dallas.

Sorry, that wasn’t a very good comp. They have to be modern titles, you see. Other than that, the pairing works perfectly. Like Bordeaux and Kraft Dinner.

I struggled with my comp titles throughout most of the first two drafts of my work-in-progress. Part Star Wars, part Game of Thrones. Except it’s neither sci-fi nor epic fantasy. Oh, and set in the real world.

Can’t imagine why it took three drafts to figure out what the hell I was doing. 

I always had an idea for what I wanted to do with it, but when the words hit the page, I couldn’t make them go that way. 

Then I read Kings of the Wyld. Wow.

Forget comp title. This bad boy opened up my world as to what was possible in genre writing. I finally figured out how to fix that major ho-hum in my WIP. Turns out it was what I always wanted to do with it, but Kings of the Wyld finally gave me permission. 

Wait, is that why we’re supposed to find current books to comp? 

So consider this my book review, my book report a year or two late. And a desperate attempt to milk one more post outta that damned Work-In-Process.

Anything to avoid querying, amirite?

Kings of the Wyld and its sequel start with a simple premise that deconstructs an underlying trope of epic fantasy. You know that rough-and-tumble group of adventurers who put their differences aside and origins together to “band together” and save the princess/town/kingdom from the wizard/dragon/demon? Well, they’re basically rock stars. What if they were actually rock stars?

That’s the premise of the series: adventurers act like your standard classic rock band. The front man tunes his axe while the wizard in the background twirls his twin daggers a la drumsticks. The “band” at the core of this book, named Saga, goes through bards like Spinal Tap does drummers. They don’t even remember how certain ones died.

The trios and quartets and quintets go on tours, traveling from city to city to defeat the monsters, then sticking around long enough for the sex and booze before moving on to the next town booked by their agent. 

At least that’s how it used to be. But like our real rock gods, the members of Saga have aged. Retired, even. Nowadays, from their perspective, these glam-rock noobs stage arena shows predicated on flash instead of substance. They even use makeup! Imagine Duane Allmann showing up at a Twisted Sister concert. Or even better, Backstreet Boys.

Except there are manticores and walking trees and shit. 

The inciting incident occurs when one of the old dudes’ daughter joined a band of her own and now needs help. What more do you want from your epic fantasy than an opening salvo of, “Let’s get the band back together.”

So part swords and sorcerers, part music appreciation, with a healthy dose of us old farts adjusting to the fact that we can’t do what we once could. Of course, we have wisdom now, but is the increase in that attribute enough to counteract the loss of strength, dexterity, and constitution all at once?

Ugh, my constitution used to be so strong. The worst part about my school reopening is retraining my bladder and bowels. Ninetyminutes between pees, six hours without pooping.

Sorry, TMI? Well the good news is you probably won’t see that being discussed in Kings of the Wyld. It often toed the line, it often hinted it might go full camp, but it never does. Every time I thought they were going to abandon the fantasy element for the rock motif, it always steered back. 

One part that stuck out was a battle of the bands with one of these newfangled boy bands. The lead up felt about 70% Led Zeppelin vs. NKOTB” and maybe 30% “Roll a d20.” They went to a bar the night before, met fans of the new band, heard all the rumors of their own demise. Some of the patrons didn’t remember Saga, while others told rumors about the old band a la Ozzy Osborne. Pretty much nobody believes they are who they say they are until they damn near burn the place down. 

Do you think David Lee Roth has similar stories from, say, the mid-nineties?

When they show up at the arena for the Battle of the Bands, however, a griffin breaks free from its chain and almost kills everyone. All of a sudden, it’s standard sword-and-sorcery, battle-the-monster type stuff. The band works together like an experienced group of adventurers and save the day, all the while creating a new generation of fans. Even those young whippersnapper adventurers learned a thing or two about how shit was dealt with back in the day, when the circumstance presaged the pomp.

That’s what I meant by always choosing the straight path when given the option. Eames constantly approached the line between campy and serious, but he never crossed it. In fact, as the book went on, once the premise was laid, he didn’t lean into it as much. The second half of the book was maybe eighty to ninety percent something you’d read from Brandon Sanderson or Geroge R.R. Martin, although not quite as wordy. He’d established the premise, he’d hooked us onto the characters, now he was telling their story.

Aas I was reading it, I was continuously surprised at how dense it was. A lot of the fantasy I’ve read the last few years are in the vein of Critical Failures or NPCs, two series that don’t take themselves seriously enough to notice there was supposed to be a line between comedy and prose. They’re quick, fun reads. I kept expecting Kings of the Wyld to take on that pacing, but it didn’t. Two equally gratifying “fixes” to the glut of epic fantasy out there.

So how does this all play into my work-in-progress? I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s intended to be part alternative history, part low fantasy. It was intended to be more of the fomer than the latter, but as I wrote it, it felt more fantasy than history. Writing a “Middle Ages that never ended” lends itself to e Olde Tyme Language. I wanted to sprinkle in a bunch of modern references. The flash fiction from which it was born featured Zip-Lock bags, and while there were a handful of real-life people, as all proper alternative histories must, they were buried in the background. I was afraid to feature them.

As I was writing, the naive POV character trying to make sense of the world took over. When he’s knee deep in profound questions about the nature of feudalism and “the world is not what it seems” seems like a bad time to drop in a “Where’s the Beef?” 

Or maybe that’s the PERFECT time to drop in a “Where’s the Beef!” That’s what Kings of the Wyld taught me. Instead of toning down the tongue-in-cheek, I could lean into it and still not let it take over the narrative.

These toungue-in-cheek moments were always part of the plan, rarely in the execution. Among the first “scenes” that popped into my head, in fact one of the phrases in the original flash fiction, was turning the Prince lyric into olde tyme speeche: “Let us feast, frivol. Let us party like ’tis nineteen hundred ninety-and-nine.” 

But every time it came to dropping one of those into the writing, I got scared. The book must take itself seriously!

Except maybe it doesn’t.

I dabbed my foot into this Brave New World with a campy Spice Girls reference that I’d planned but shied away from. When I sent the first batch to a couple of beta readers, out of 10,000 words of introduction, with at least three bona fide characters to connect with and a myriad of worldbuilding mysteries, what was the one response that everyone had? “I really liked the Spice Girls part.”

Great. The only part they glommed onto was the throw-in that had little to do with the plot. Why should I bother writing the other 90,000 words if I could’ve just gone Spice Girls for 500 pages.

Except, of course, the Spice Girls only works as an accoutrement. Christmas ornaments only work if they’ve got a tree to hang on. 

Nicholas Eames did a great job of toeing that line. I knew when he was being funny and when he was being serious. At least, by the end I did. Early on, I thought there must be some jokes I was missing, and that feeling continued as he phased away from the rock references. In the second half, they became rarer as the conflict and the characters we’ve come to care about took over the plot. I find myself following a similar pattern. The first few drop-ins are lengthier, more developed. They need to hook the reader. In the later chapters they’re only there as a reminder. By then, the reader needs to care about the characters.

That’s what brought me to Kings of the Wyld. If it was reviewed as “old adventurers are forced to fight again when a daughter is in trouble,” I wouldn’t have sought it out. But “In a world where they are treated like rock gods, four retired adventurers decide it’s time to ‘get the band back together!’? Hell yeah! So if my book becomes known for the Spice Girls and nothing else… shit, I’d LOVE for my book to be known for something. Anything.

To be fair, I still worry when I drop in 1990s vernacular. Will the agent/editor/publisher/reader realize that a wee peasant lass dropping an, “As if!” is intentional, and not just the markings of a writer who doesn’t understand that modern parlances shall not grace Medieval literature. Not that “as if” is modern parlance, but you know what I mean. I’ve read far too many “period pieces” only to find myself diving for a dictionary to verify my assumption that that word didn’t exist until 100 years later. Sorry, your Civil War soldier isn’t worried that his life is going into a “tailspin” forty years before the first airplane.

But you gotta take some risks if you want to stick out of the slush pile, to say nothing of the thousands of published works that also found their own way out of it. 

The good news is I now know it can be done.

But it must be done well.

Shit. 

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