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Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames4 stars

Buy from IndieBoundKings of the Wyld is what you might get if Joe Abercrombie had written This Is Spinal Tap. There’s a lot of humor here. But the story’s main joke — and it’s a good one — is that in this epic fantasy world, bands of adventurers are literally rock stars. Every time a band goes on a quest or a hired mission to clear out some disagreeable monsters, it’s promoted as a tour, and there are managers, booking agents, and mobs of fans and groupies cheering them on. Naturally, older generations complain that everything today is style over substance. And so many of these new bands play it safe! Who wants to risk venturing into the monster-infested depths of the Heartwyld Forest when you can just book an arena and stage fights for your adoring fans? Things ain’t what they used to be!

Clay Cooper’s glory days are long over as a member of Saga. Retired to the quiet rural community of Coverdale, safely within the kingdom of Grandual, Clay is satisfied with the family life that keeps him grounded. So he’s none too happy when his old friend and bandmate Golden Gabe shows up at his door with a desperate plea for help. There is nothing Clay wants less than to get the band back together, even when Gabe explains that his daughter, Rose, evidently a real chip off the old block, is trapped in a besieged city hundreds of miles away across the terrifying expanse of the Heartwyld. But after some prodding — from his own daughter Tally, no less — Clay saddles up and joins Gabe on his journey to reunite Saga for one final tour.

Moog (that’s cute) is now a scatterbrained mage who’s done well for himself with his erectile dysfunction cure, because of course you can’t have a story about a bunch of burned out middle-aged dudes without that being a joke. Matrick Skulldrummer settled for the trophy marriage, and sure, while he ended up becoming king of the realm and all, he’s still miserable with a contemptuous harridan of a wife and five kids, none of whom are his. And finally, Ganelon — well, he ended up literally petrified in stone for about 20 years.

Numerous perils await as all the old members of Saga eventually reunite. Clay and Gabe make a mortal enemy of Kallorek, their former booking agent who’s restyled himself into a criminal kingpin. Eventually they all find themselves, in the book’s most exciting scene, trapped in combat with a fearsome chimera in a floating gladiatorial arena. And they keep bumping into a girl-gang of thieves, Lady Jain and the Silk Arrows, who become perhaps the best frenemies an adventure band could ever have.

There are so many things to discuss about this book that I don’t want to sell Nicholas Eames’ considerable achievements short by glossing over any one of them. But thinking over what works well in Kings of the Wyld, it isn’t just the deft balance of action and humor, with its seemingly inexhaustible stream of rock and roll parody. (I mean, the book is chock full of easter eggs for rock mavens, from Clay’s nickname Slowhand — borrowed from Eric Clapton — all the way to Eames’ borrowing This Is Spinal Tap’s running gag about the high mortality rate of the band’s drummers, though Eames substitutes bards.)

What I appreciated most about Kings of the Wyld is that, sure, while it’s happy to poke fun at masculinity in all its different swaggering permutations, it’s also a book about men getting older, and how our self-image, our values, our attitudes towards friendship and family and loyalty change with age. We all have pasts full of things we’re both proud of and things we regret, and as we get older it’s easier to evaluate where we’ve been and who it’s made us, and if we’ve got the will to change the things we can change and not worry about the things we can’t. The consequences of choices we’ve made stay with us no matter how much time passes. And in Kings, Eames presents us with a group of older men who once changed their world, and are now facing one that’s changing without them, and reevaluating what really matters as a result.

Gabe isn’t trying to get Saga back together as a way of clinging to his youth and glory days gone by. He’s acting as a father — perhaps a bit overprotective and impractical in thinking getting past a horde will be a trifling detail, but still motivated by paternal love and responsibility. And Clay is the same way, joining him because he knows, if it were his own child, nothing could keep him away. As we learn more about Clay’s past, we learn of a man who was suited to the adventuring life because of a propensity for violence that’s pretty disturbing, and it’s only through the emotional discipline and healing influence of family life that he was able to leave that part of himself in the past. Will one last run with the band let him keep that monster safely under control, or not?

Other characters have their grace notes. Moog is obsessed with finding a cure for the magical rot that eats away at the bodies of those who tarry too long in the Heartwyld, which killed his husband and is now creeping up his own foot. (If it’s an HIV metaphor, Eames doesn’t overdo it.) For all that Moog is the band’s comic relief — and he’s the character who feels the most Terry Pratchett-inspired — there’s pathos to the way grief and love are what motivates him more than anything. And Larkspur, an assassin who pursues the band in the book’s second half, before events throw a twist in her plans, is revealed to be not so different from Clay. A history of ruthless bullying made the monster that now lives inside her, and whether she’s actually managed to let it go, or whether it will come back without warning, brings an undercurrent of tension to later chapters.

The book’s imperfect in the way of most debuts. It’s overlong at nearly 500 pages, and we’re almost halfway through before the full band is at last together. An extended sequence late in the book among a group of cannibal savages isn’t nearly as gross as it could have been, thank god, but also feels a bit superfluous. (Though it does introduce us to perhaps the book’s most touching character, the two-headed beast Gregor and Dane.) And while I certainly don’t expect, let alone want, all of the book’s jokes to be in good taste, sometimes I cringed at the mean-spirited way the book portrays its fat characters. If they’re not straight-up malformed monsters like the cannibal queen, it’s hard to overlook the way fat characters like Kallorek and even Matrick equate obesity with failure of moral character.

But what Eames nails, he utterly obliterates. Kings of the Wyld is a sweeping, tragicomic adventure epic with deeply human heroes and sympathetic villains, played out with excitement, snark and real heart in a rich, textured fantasy realm with a complex and smartly crafted history. Pick this one up and get ready to rock.

Followed by Bloody Rose.