I’d like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher - Orbit
Price - £8.99 paperback
Published – Out Now
Live fast, die young.
Tam Hasford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown.
When the biggest mercenary bad of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard. It’s adventure she wants – and adventure she gets as the crew embarks on a quest that will end in one of two ways: glory or death.
Fantasy, SF and rock music do seem to go together well. Highlander without Queen’s soundtrack falls over (just look at the sequels) and Led Zeppelin definitely stole a few legends into their own storytelling. A music that appeals to the inner soul and can go truly epic and up to 11 easily fits with fantasy’s various kingdoms of the ice and snow and riders approaching cities while the wolf begins to howl…. (notes cease and desist letter from lawyers) …ahem. But Nicholas Eames has in this book examined the life of the fantasy heroes and heroines and imagined that there may be quite a few similarities with those of the stars of the bands themselves. In Bloody Rose there is a fantastic examination of what such a life may look like.
The key conceit of the story is simple. Heroes join up as Bands (of warriors) and go on tour around the lands fighting monsters for fees and gaining fans as tales of their exploits go far and wide. As time has moved on now towns have arenas where monsters are put in place of the acts to fuight (or be killed) alongside waiting for the call for a slightly wilder adventure. And listening to this in a tavern is Tam Hashford herself the daughter of a now deceased Band Bard and she wants to go outside that village her father has stopped her from leaving. When she hears the infamous Band, Fable is auditioning for their next bard she seizes the chance and is soon working with her new leader ‘Bloody’ Rose to go on what may be the most lucrative score of all. However, all other bands are going in the other direction to fight a new power preparing to invade the land.
Tam finds herself with Rose – the taciturn but fiercely protective heart of the band herself following in a famous parent’s footsteps; there is her lover the druin Freecloud from a mysterious and magical immortal lineage; backing these up is the Shaman Brune who can shapeshift but struggles with controlling his wilder side and then the Summoner Cura who uses her tattoos to summon powerful creations to fight her battles and loves to live on the edge. Behind the scenes is the flamboyant and often still drunk Roderick organising the tour. A tight unit that understands each other but now needing to find out if Tam can be accepted. Imagine a rock tour but with bigger dangers than cut-throat agents.
I had not got around to Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames last year (too many books and too little time) I was aware of this idea of Bands and was intrigued what it would mean. In some ways this initially feels like a fantasy take on Almost Famous as Tam is slotted into this group of living legends and starts to find out what an actual life on tour means. The Bard’s role is to sit back and sing about how heroic her Band is and yes it does appear a life of living on the edge where any moment you can die but the roar of the crowd, the groupies and copious amounts of sex and drugs is the reward. Exactly what kind of person does this attract?
Eames is great at humorously deconstructing the standard fantasy tropes and exploring the type of people heroes probably are when they’re not standing in the arena soaking in the adulation after the next kill. As Tam herself realises that role requires a certain type of person and their motivation as to why they’re doing this needs to be understood in order to better know that person. As with many rock stars their background informs why they decided to seek the stage and possibly escape. Rose for example has a very strong emotional relationship with Freecloud but also a constant desire to be proving herself against the living legend that her father is; Bruin and Cura have both felt this lifestyle is probably safer than her home and Roderick feels like this is one of the few places he can be himself. The first half of the book is a series of escapades and adventures as the band travels where we get to learn and love this group and understand the world it is part of. Its successful and can range from the laugh out loud funny to the heart-breaking. Ultimately this is a found family story of how these people bond and care for each other.
But this is still epic fantasy and very skilfully there is a midway turning point where Fable’s mission turns out to have far huger consequences for the entire world than anyone can imagine. This is where that build up really succeeds because now the group we are so invested in are going to be right in the middle of a huge confrontation. By putting themselves on the line the band really must show they have the right stuff and sometimes that’s the only time you can truly earn your true moment of glory but there may be consequences as this lifestyle isn’t always going to mean a happy ending. Eames has a fluid style of writing and he can do small character scenes which make you understand the people you are meeting but then he can easily swing to the epic battle with huge monsters; swirling action and at times some beautiful moments of pathos and solidarity. The final battle in the book is expertly plotted both tactically and emotionally the latter something I wish was thought about a lot more in fight scenes.
One last thing I really enjoyed was the progressive look fantasy. This wasn’t just in the range of characters. Our lead Tam is gay, and this seems to be broadly accepted in this world but there is an examination of the way the human races treat all the other creatures they live alongside. In the aftermath of the last war creatures such as gorgons, orcs and goblins can now find themselves sold as battle fodder in the arenas and ultimately Tam starts to think the myth of the band life may be better than the real thing. Especially when this attitude starts to ferment the next war. There is an interesting side commentary on fantasy (a bit like Rock) playing with the worlds of the older generation; perhaps going a little crazy and then asking if there are other ways to live/write than eternal bloodshed for the audience using stock battles ad infinitum?
I found this an engrossing read that mixes some great ideas with a great writing and characters all doing something different to the expected. I will definite be catching up on Kings of the Wyld soon, but I think this series could end up another entry in what a golden period in recent new fantasy authors has been. Strongly recommended but be warned urge to grab a sword or guitar and play to crowds may take place.