A review by eoghann
The King's Sword by C.J. Brightley


At the end of a recent book review I made a comment to the effect that I was getting rather weary of 'grimdark' fantasy. Well The King's Sword is about as far from 'grimdark' as you can get. In fact the central characters are so consistently good and honorable in their world view the author does run the risk of her story being dismissed as naïve. But, you know, there's really nothing wrong with a story that exemplifies good behavior rather than bad.

The story is told entirely from the viewpoint of Kemen Sendoa, a retired solider, who rescues a teenage boy lost and out in the countryside in deep winter. The boy turns out to be the son of the, now dead, King of Erdemen and thus heir presumptive.

Wait, Don't Tell Me, I've Heard This One Before

It's true that this isn't a particularly original concept for a storyline. A prince on the run from a usurper and helped by a grizzled veteran. But the quality of stories should be judged by their execution not the originality of a one line synopsis, so let's not rush to conclusions here.

Kemen seems to be a particularly honorable soldier with a strong love for his country despite his country failing to show that love back and also very firm beliefs on how a country should be ruled. This is admittedly a rather modern take on nationality but it also serves to explain his actions given that early on the Prince Hakan is a bit snivelly and spoilt. To be fair, given the circumstances the Prince really doesn't behave that badly, and I'd be pretty sulky myself.

Kemen does take Hakan under his wing, in a gruff and barely tolerating him sort of way and proceeds to give him life lessons. This part of the book does come across as a little heavy handed in places. We get a lot of very detailed scenes of Kemen training Hakan in sword fighting or unarmed combat, discussions about various people and places in this world and also an internal monologue from Kemen about the importance of honor.

I think the pacing here is unfortunate because while there are a lot of important things happening in terms of world and character building, it does feel very slow and I found myself wondering when things were going to start happening. That's almost never a good thing for the reader to be thinking.

On the more positive side this methodical and detailed build up gives us a lot of time in Kemen's head and the result is a very rounded character.

Let Me Tell You About This World

The word infodump is bandied about in a derogatory fashion pretty frequently I've noticed. Not always accurately. There's a legitimate issue hidden behind that word though. Sometimes the author needs to get a lot of information in the readers head quickly and the most efficient, if not most elegant, way is simply to tell them. Sometimes, however, it's more that the author really wants to share extra information with the reader.

The world this story is set in is notionally a fantasy world in that while there is no magic and there don't seem to be any monsters, it is set in a broadly medieval time period and it's clearly not our world. It's also a fairly well realized world with elements of language, multiple cultures and other details in place.

I imagine that C. J. Brightley spent a good amount of time building all that as background for the story, so it's hardly surprising if she wants to share as much as she can with the reader. The problem is that sometimes it doesn't feel like it has much to do with the plot. Discussions about various geographic locations or cultures seem to exist mainly to share that information. This added to my impatience with the first half of the book. It might have been better to hold some of that back for when they became relevant in future stories.

Overthrowing The Usurper

Fortunately all of the backstory and world building and character moments are leading somewhere. Kemen finally decides to stop traipsing around the countryside and make a stand of sorts. From this point on, things happen and a lot of the elements set up earlier on do pay off.

Hakan starts to show a rather more Kingly (or at least Princely) side to his character and Kemen's lectures on how to rule well are put to some good use.

If there's a problem at all with this section of the book it's that maybe Kemen and Hakan have it a little too easy. Well, Kemen actually gets beaten up a fair bit so that's probably not the right phrasing. But at no point did I ever doubt how things were going to end. Kemen is just a bit too good and no one really challenges him either physically or morally. It would have been nice to see a character with a different viewpoint stand up to him a little.

Kemen also, and this does seem to be in character for him, is very morally certain and confident which I think dampens the feeling of jeopardy in the situations they face.

Good People Trying To Do The Right Thing

In short, what we have here is a tale of two good people trying to do the right thing both for themselves and for their country. That's not a bad starting point for a story. And Kemen is generally a likeable and appealing protagonist.

While the first part of the book did seem slow to me, it wasn't a slog to read by any means and I was enjoying it quite a bit once the pace picked up. I do wonder if having a single viewpoint protagonist may have worked against the story at little bit by making Kemen's world view overwhelmingly dominant and also making the political and military threats seem very distant most of the time.

This is the first of a series of three books and there's certainly room to explore the characters and world further particularly if it involves moving into areas where Kemen is less self-confident.

It is nice to be able to come away from a book without feeling that every character you've read about, including the protagonists, are horrible, deceitful and probably deserve to be pushed off a bridge.