Review: “The King’s Blood” (ARC) by S.E. Zbasnik


Final Rating: threecupscropped cups of tea that started out frustrating, but ended up tasting pretty good.

“The King’s Blood” is a book which I was sent an advance reader’s copy of by the author, who is my friend on Twitter. I was honored to be selected to review someone else’s book before it was even published, something that’s never happened to me before. Unfortunately, I had some issues with the book…but the author asked me to be honest, so I will be.

The reasons it took me almost a month to finish a 630 page book are threefold:

First, I kept getting jarred out of my sense of disbelief by a near constant parade of pop culture references and jokes which, to me, didn’t make any sense in the context of the book. Some of them were funny, but I often didn’t have time to appreciate them because in the next few sentences, there was another. And another. And another.

Many of these jokes (like one involving chainsaws) didn’t fit at all in to the world of medieval fantasy, and the result was that I ended up thinking more about how the jokes had annoyed me, and less about what was going on in the story. I love it when fantasy books mock common fantasy tropes, or do things which are tongue-in-cheek, but in this case it felt more like the author was making fun of our world and using her characters to do it. And again, there were so many of them that I was unable to appreciate their humor–they all just started blurring together.

After awhile, it also began to feel like the author was sort of hiding behind the jokes. I realized then that (at least in the beginning of the book) “The King’s Blood” follows a very tried and true set of fantasy tropes and formulas, and aside from its main character being a young black girl, doesn’t really break way from these formulas until much later. If you take away the jokes, the first two thirds of the book are actually fairly predictable. Being predictable isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was left wanting more than just a glib one-liner to help me bond with the world the author had created.

The second thing that made it easy for me to put down “The King’s Blood” is exposition. There is so much of it.  Obviously, a little exposition in a fantasy novel is pretty much par for the course. But there was one particular pattern the author follows which annoyed me no end and actually caused me to speed-read through entire pages:

Character: [says something to another character]

(one to two paragraphs of exposition, often about that character’s background, feelings, a “flashback” to an earlier time, or simply more jokes)

Other character: [replies to the first character, often with only one or two words]

(one to two more paragraphs of exposition)

Character: [says one sentence]

(more exposition)

Other character: [finally concludes the conversation. if it’s an unnamed character, this usually happens with their death.]

This formula drove me absolutely mad, and it happened with almost every single conversation in the book.  I want to know what your characters are saying, not what their favorite food was when they were twelve. So what I ended up doing was speed-reading until I saw quotation marks, and I would only read what was in quotation marks. And I didn’t read a single conversation that was confusing or uninteresting without the exposition in between every sentence. The dialogue in this book is great, and I wish I’d been allowed to appreciate it without having to unbury it first.

The third and final issue I had with the book is the author chose to alternate chapters between the POV of the “good” main characters with the “bad” main characters. Problem is, I flat out didn’t care what the “bad” guys were doing. There was even less dialogue and action in the “bad” chapters than in the “good” ones–they were almost all exposition. I skimmed through these chapters for important dialogue to make sure that I didn’t miss anything essential, and then skipped them in their entirety. The “bad” and “good” characters meet later on, of course, where we get to see the “bad” guys in their full badness anyway, so I really don’t see what the point of jumping into their heads was.

OK. I know that sounds like a lot of hate, and I’m sorry. I really am. But now, we get to the fun part: Stuff I really, really liked about this book. 🙂

For one thing, the constant barrage of jokes and exposition calms down a lot by the time I got a little more than halfway through the book. By then, I was skipping and skimming a lot less, and I felt able to sit down and enjoy the adventure the characters are on.

The main character, Ciara, is wonderful. And I love that the author has chosen to make her a young black girl. (There is also an Asian girl later on, who doesn’t have the “perfect adventurer body” in addition to her being a badass witch, and I loved her too) I liked the assassin, too. In fact, pretty much the only character I disliked was Aldrin, simply because he’s so stereotypical. (Though I did like what happens between him and his brother towards the end. Huge respect points earned for that…though a few got subtracted when he stopped Ciara from doing exactly the same thing later on. Felt hypocritical.)

And the traveling scholars? Oh my god. More of this, please! Not only was it something I haven’t seen before in a fantasy book, but they were hilarious and lovable (or hateable, depending). They each felt like their own character, and it made sense that they were there. I legit cried when a certain traumatic event takes place within their caravan near the end of the book. Not many books have ever made me cry, but this moment made me feel like I lost a friend. I’m still sad about it. That moment earned this book a cup of tea all by itself.

Despite my persistent phobia of zombies, I also liked how this book handles undead. I love the name the author uses for them, and I love their connection to magic and witches. In fact, I liked most of what the author did with the witches. They edged a little too close to the typical formula for me to love them, but I also see a lot of potential there and I enjoyed how their magic defies the status quo. I also like that the journey Aldrin and Ciara make feels like it takes time. There’s a good sense of how long everything takes, and how brutal the season change is. It’s not just a casual jaunt through the woods.

And, perhaps most importantly, I liked the ending. It was satisfying, and opened up the way for future books should the author choose to pursue them.

All in all, this isn’t a bad book. I think it needs to have a lot of fat trimmed, but again that’s my personal preference. Someone else could pick this up and have a wonderful time. I would definitely say give this book a try, and see what you think. Most definitely follow its author on Twitter, because she’s awesome. 🙂


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