City of Kings by Rob J. Hayes

War makes monsters and corpses of us all.

For generations the blooded have ruled the Wilds, cultivating a lawless frontier and bleeding the good folk dry. The Black Thorn, once the most wanted outlaw the world has ever seen, is set on stopping them, and bringing an end to the great game that oppresses them all.

Crucible is the only blooded fortress left, but not for nothing is it called the City of Kings. Its defenses are unbreakable, its walls unassailable, all built so one hundred can hold back a thousand. Worse yet, the Black Thorn is running out of time and there are darker things hiding underground, looking to turn the city into a tomb.

Rob J. Hayes is an author with a lot of eyes on him at the moment. Fresh off of winning the 3rd annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off with his piratical fantasy Where Loyalties Lie, Hayes returns to that world with this stand-alone story.

I should mention that prior knowledge of the other books in Hayes’ First Earth Saga is not required to read this story. On the contrary, if you’d like to see if Rob’s books are up your alley but aren’t quite so sure about committing to a trilogy or a duology, City of Kings could be a decent starting point.

The plot of this story pretty much begins and ends with the siege of the city of Crucible. Crucible’s defences are pretty comprehensive to say the least, and those in the know suggest that it would take a very prolonged siege to starve out the city.

Unfortunately, Rose—The pregnant wife of notorious outlaw “The Black Thorn”—demands that the city must fall before her child is born. This narrows that timescale from months to days, and to hell with the cost.

The cost, of course, being the lives of her soldiers.

Rose is a very interesting character. I’m not particularly sure that such a character could exist outside of a grimdark novel, but here she is pretty much at the shriveled, black heart of the story. She’s… ambitious. She’s also cruel, calculating, and willing to go to extreme measures to get what she wants. In short, she’s everything that a grimdark fan usually looks for in a protagonist.

While The Black Thorn is the face of the attacking army, and he’s the one that most soldiers are familiar with or owe their loyalty to, he isn’t the man in charge. Rose is the one who runs this show, and that’s made very clear right from the prologue.

The fact that we have a woman protagonist who very much embodies the expected characteristics of a male grimdark MC makes for some very interesting conflicts. Soldiers don’t leap to carry out her orders. At least, not at first. The fact that she’s pregnant causes the people around her to treat her as something fragile, no matter how competent she repeatedly proves herself to be.

I have to admit that I didn’t really connect with her the way I have with other characters in the past. She intrigued me, but she didn’t really excite me. This might just be a case of “your mileage may vary”, but it could also be that for much of the story, her motivations aren’t really made clear. She wants the city of Crucible, but since I didn’t know why she wanted it, I found it hard to relate.

This ambiguity kinda clouded my enjoyment of the novel. Things happen just… because. There were a few subplots which kinda fizzled out, and a few reveals that came with no real foreshadowing. At least, none that I could see. However, it could be a possibility that these scenes were nods to the wider world of the First Earth Saga. Having not read beyond this book and Where Loyalties Lie, I can’t say for sure.

And on that note, despite my grievances about motivations, this world is pretty fucking cool. Sometimes things don’t need a reason to happen. In fact, it’s a pretty common theme in many grimdark novels that sometimes shit just happens, and there’s nothing to do but deal with the fallout.

City of Kings has trolls, swarms of undead, and an apparently evil species called the Drurr (which I gather is important to the overarching story of the First Earth Saga). The worldbuilding here, especially for a stand-alone novel, is great. On top of that, Rob J. Hayes can write a hell of a battle scene, and he manages to tie these scenes into the viewpoint character in a way which makes each of them subtly different.

Beyond Rose and the Black Thorn, there is quite an entertaining cast of “secondary” point-of-view characters. There’s a dishonored bodyguard, a scar-faced little murderess, and a drunken would-be patricide who is just a delight.

I’m hesitant to say any more about these characters, as they strike me as the types who do better when introduced in the context of the story. But rest assured, they are quite wonderful.

As a whole, this is a book which I feel many grimdark readers will enjoy. It has a brooding, resigned tone with lots of well-written violence. The plot is perhaps more of a focus than the characters, but they still manage to shine when given the chance.

If you’re a fan of dark books with darker worlds, this could be the one for you.

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