Kings of the Wyld: Nicholas Eames

★★★★

The Band: Book I

They used to be epic. There was a time when Clay Cooper and his old band Saga used to raise the roof: their deeds the stuff of popular songs and breathless admiration. They broke sieges, slew monsters and (almost) killed a dragon. Each of their members was a legend in his own right (apart from their series of short-lived, unfortunate bards). But that was a long time ago now. Twenty long years separate Clay Cooper from the glory of Saga’s heyday and, when the frontman Gabriel turns up on his doorstep, begging Clay to help him get the band back together, Clay is tempted to say no. They’re old men, now, after all: he has a wife and daughter, and he’s turned his back on the Clay Cooper of old. But Gabriel needs their help to track down his own missing daughter. Before Clay quite knows what’s happened, he’s setting out with his old friend to do the impossible: to reunite Saga for one last, great, glorious farewell tour.

Getting a band back together is always hard work. In Saga’s case, it’s especially difficult. Clay isn’t remotely keen to leave his wife and child, whom he loves with an intensity that forms ‘the speck of gold siphoned from the clouded river of his soul‘. Arcandius Moog, the band’s wizard, has retreated to his tower where he devotes himself to finding a cure for the rot, the disease which killed his lover; inventing various exciting alchemical processes; and dreaming about owlbears. Matrick Skulldrummer, once a devil with his pair of knives, has become king of Agria, with a beautiful, ice-cold and scornful wife, a troop of oddly diverse children, and a rapidly-expending belly. And Ganelon… well, Ganelon is a particularly problematic case, and no one really expects him to be happy to see them. But, if anyone can hope to reunite a gang of old warriors for one last adventure, it’s Gabriel. Oh yes. The boys (as it says on the cover) are back in town…

Our heroes find themselves wandering through a changed world. Bands aren’t what they used to be. Back in the day, Saga, Vanguard and their contemporaries would plunge into the dangers of the Heartwyld to kill monsters, clear out goblin-nests and find treasure. But now the new-generation bands lead an easy life of adulation, facing purpose-bred monsters in the arena beneath the eyes of thousands, and savouring their victory parades afterwards. And yet this is precisely the moment when the world needs a few dozen brave mercenaries of old-school calibre. A druin, one of the ancient ruling race, has reappeared in the west and lain siege to the city of Castia with a Horde drawn from the depths of the Heartwyld, formed of monsters from every nightmare. And Saga’s quest, naturally, is to somehow get Gabriel’s daughter Rose out of Castia from under the very noses of said Horde. Oh, and said druin just happens to be an old adversary too. But then again, if it’s going to be Saga’s last gig, they might as well go out in a blaze of glory.

Nicolas Eames’s wonderful novel is mid-life sword-and-sorcery, with a gritty grimdark edge and a generous, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour lurking underneath. This is what happens after the end of the usual fantasy story, when the band of warriors have hung up their shields, and run to fat, and started to get twinges in their knees when they walk too far. And it isn’t just a romp, though there’s a good deal of romping to be had: this is also a story about getting old, and learning what matters in life, and being ready to go screaming into the jaws of death to help a friend, and making peace with the next generation of upstarts who think they know better than you, and trying to figure out exactly how to fight a minotaur when your back’s killing you and your lungs aren’t as good as they were. All the members of Saga come to life as endearing, well-meaning, slightly creaky individuals (except Ganelon, who remains somewhat remote), and I warmed to some of the secondary characters too, especially Lady Jain and the Silk Arrows.

The world is best described as high fantasy meets A Knight’s Tale: epic adventure with a rock-music sheen. Bands of mercenaries are hailed with the kind of adoration most usually seen in our world in the frantic mosh-pits of classic rock groups. The parallels with the world of rock are clear and affectionate: mercenary bands have grand names and, especially in the case of some of the younger bands, a united ‘look’ of platinum blonde hair or grungy eyeliner. (If Saga are like the Rolling Stones, new bands like the Screaming Eagles are more like Nirvana.) In choosing the name for his headlining band, Eames must have been nodding not only to the Norse epics but also the retirement magazine. It’s precisely the kind of humour I’d expect from him. There are other references nudged in, some of which could be accidental, others surely not: a university at a place called Oddsford; a nod to The Princess Bride (‘I’m not sure that word means what you think it means‘), and characters christened in honour of rock legends: Fender; Slade; Neil the Young; ‘Syd (son of Barret)‘; Clearwater; a sword called Hawkwind. And yet it’s done unobtrusively enough that it doesn’t feel awkward; on the contrary, it’s subtle enough to give you a little flash of smugness when you spot one. 

This is a massive, sprawling, roistering, swaggering, rollicking rock-opera of a novel. It’s stout of heart and sinew, set in a beautifully developed world where the fantasy is ramped up to eleven without ever jumping the shark. Eames accomplishes the rare feat of combining a gripping plot with rich characters and a very distinctive tone of voice. It’s always such a treat to stumble across an author with whom you really ‘click’ as a reader. This was exactly what I needed at the moment, and I’ll be tracking down the sequel very, very soon. Really good stuff. Rock on…

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Question for the floor: what do you think an owlbear would look like? With apologies to Eames, I can’t get the mental image of a Furby out of my head…

4 thoughts on “Kings of the Wyld: Nicholas Eames

  1. Zezee says:

    Lol!
    Well, Avatar the Last Airbender is one of my fav shows and it has a Cat Owl so I imagined the Owl Bear as something similar, like a bear body with wings.

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