The Splinter King

Book cover: The Splinter King - Mike BrooksThe devout know that divine Nari, founder of Narida, will be reborn when he is most needed. With the current God-king sick and Tjakorshi Raiders settling on the Black Coast, the time is surely ripe. But how will Narida welcome him?

I was pleasantly surprised by The Black Coast when I read it earlier this year. The first volume in Mike Brooks’s God-king Chronicles subverted epic fantasy tropes to deliver a compelling social fantasy that I struggled to put down. I’ve been on tenterhooks to read the sequel ever since (expect spoilers for book one from here).

The Splinter King starts out strongly with a prologue promising religious schism and civil war – inevitably, not everybody believes in Nari Reborn – but I soon found myself bogged down in the sheer number of points of view. While this is a regular feature of epic fantasy, it often results in slow, fragmented narratives that can be frustrating. The Black Coast negotiated a tricky balance by having its POVs inform one another, providing different perspectives on two core plots: the Tjakorshi settlement of the Black Coast and Princess Tila’s attempt to assassinate the Splinter King in Kiburu ce Alaba. It also earned a great deal of rope by introducing fascinating world-building that added tension and organic cultural challenges alongside the plot-based conflicts.

In The Splinter King, the multitude of perspectives are separate in focus and location, making for an awful lot to keep track of across disconnected chapters. If I’m generous, The Splinter King explores various threats to the Naridan throne and the continued cultural impact of the Brown Eagle clan on Black Keep. If I’m harsh, it foregrounds secondary characters from The Black Coast with meandering subplots that often defuse their own tension in order to – presumably – set the scene for more exciting conflicts in book three. Both are true; after wading through nearly 700 pages of plot with the consistency of treacle, I wasn’t feeling very generous. All of which sounds very negative, but there’s plenty to enjoy if you have a higher tolerance for epic-length, detail-driven fantasy.

So – and I’m sorry, this is going to take a while – let’s talk about those subplots and where they worked for me (and where they didn’t). Or – TL;DR – you can just skip to the conclusion.

Galem – now known as Bulang, the eponymous Splinter King – wrestles with their gender identity and their inheritance as they try to survive the deadly streets of Kiburu ce Alaba. Jeya must step up as their protector, showing a flair for leadership and strategy even as she comes to terms with the recognition that her old friends may not be who she has always thought. These are classic fantasy plots with a trans protagonist, which I would have enjoyed more if it hadn’t been served in interrupted fragments (okay, fine: if I wasn’t having more fun reading Tila). As with The Black Coast, Brooks gives the antagonist a POV; this adds tension (and had me screaming at one key scene; poor Damau), but serves mostly to provide context for their motivations (without ever excusing their choices). I applaud that Brooks is keen to ensure he doesn’t serve up paper-thin villains.

This is less true at Black Keep, where rivals Darkspur are once again causing trouble. There is – briefly – the promise of a spicy subplot as the heir of Darkspur becomes entangled with Daimon and Saana. Sadly, this is cut off at the knee by her (villainously paper-thin) male escorts, who find excuses to provoke more direct conflict. The result is a POV that I would have cut entirely; I’d rather not know whether the message Daimon receives is genuine – for me, there’s more tension in that than in wondering whether he’ll believe it. I assume the purpose is to introduce Yarmina for book three… but that’s very much my problem with The Splinter King: it’s almost all about setting up future shenanigans rather than dishing up hijinks of its own.

However, Daimon and Saana continue to model the most wholesome marriage in fantasy fiction, and I will put up with a lot of diversions to read more about it. I am here for the many ways in which Daimon is growing into an exceptional and honourable man: appointing former antagonist Ekram as his right-hand man (unlike The Black Coast, I enjoyed Ekram’s chapters for his determination to do his new job well and fairly); embracing his tricky marriage whole-heartedly rather than taking an easy way out; and introducing new forms of government at Black Keep.

In sharp contrast, I’d have been far happier without the Stonejaw chapters. I didn’t need to see the micro-steps that lead the Golden to Narida (especially given his demonstrated supernatural advantages) and I wasn’t about to develop sympathy for Rikkut Fireheart’s surviving captains after they slaved their way to Alaba. However, this is personal bias: for all my love of the sagas, I avoid Viking-inspired fantasy. I enjoy the Tjakorshi of Black Keep because they are out of context and provide fascinating cultural contrasts; fantasy Vikings being fantasy Vikings is rather less interesting to me, but will no doubt play well to other readers given the genre’s ongoing love affair with anything Norse-inspired.

Thank heavens for Tila – as stabby as ever – who kept me from DNFing for the first half of the book as she tries to seize control of the search for Nari Reborn (if this person is Nari then she won’t be able to assassinate them, so there’s no harm trying; that’s my girl). I was reflecting that she was a tad overconfident and needed bringing down a peg or two when Brooks unleashed a classic series of reversals that kept me coasting through other narratives to get back to her downfall and revenge (complete with a fabulously entertaining trial by combat; when Brooks goes to town on fantasy tropes, he does so with panache).

But there are three other plotlines I haven’t mentioned yet, which should explain why I ended up so frustrated by The Splinter King. Zhanna’s coming of age storyline is a sidequest (albeit confirming Darkspur’s villainy), but Zhanna is so engaging she makes it an unexpected highlight. By contrast, the various temptations of Darel Blackcreek – dispatched to Narida to convince the God-King to permit the Brown Eagle clan to stay at Black Keep – are charming but bland; he’s a cinnamon roll whose adventures feel increasingly engineered, although they also – briefly – deliver the one real surprise of the book. Finally, there’s inveterate thief Marin and his husband Alazar, the God-King’s disgraced former lover, who get pulled into Tila’s plots and go in search of Nari Reborn. It’s tempting – in spite of the book’s title – to consider this the central plot of the novel, but it’s sadly rather dull although it does introduce an intriguing (and delightfully spiky) healer seeking salvation.

The main problem is that 700 pages simply isn’t enough to give this many characters or plots meaningful arcs – which is why in spite of running to the length of 2 books, everything ends up feeling like subplot. Consider it the literary equivalent of showing your workings in maths – a meticulous account of the many contributing factors that are bringing Narida to crisis. By the end, I felt I had drowned in detail, half of which I simply didn’t care about.

The Splinter King isn’t a bad book, but it’s very much a middle book – and one that leaves me unclear how Brooks can satisfactorily conclude in just one more (perhaps he won’t; I’m not sure why I think this is a trilogy other than dubious assumption). Worse, I’m no longer particularly invested; I care deeply about the fate of Black Keep, but – and to be fair, I expected this problem for myself – can hardly be the main focus with a confrontation between gods looming.

Expectation matters, of course – if I reset mine for stately and multitudinous, I may enjoy The Splinter King rather more on a reread, because I have a great deal of affection for the characters and themes. Still, the next book will need to deliver rather more if its to elevate The God-King Chronicles back to the heights it achieved at the outset.

THE SPLINTER KING is out now in ebook and paperback.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.