Title: The King’s Name
Author: Jo Walton
Summary: Years have passed since the Jarnish invasion, and Sulien ap Gwien has worked tirelessly alongside her lord, King Urdo, to restore the King’s Peace to Tir Tanagiri. But the man Sulien believes to be the greatest of his time is seen by others as a potential tyrant. Urdo’s vision of a nation of citizens bound by a single code of law is viewed with increasing mistrust, and this soon gives way to civil war.
Sulien must take up arms again. But where once her enemies were barbarian invaders, now they are former comrades and loved ones. As the conflict tears her country and her family apart, Sulien must fight harder and harder to hold onto Urdo’s vision of the future.
The King’s Name is set several years after the ending of The King’s Peace and starts with the first suggestions of civil war. The last time I read The King’s Peace I sadly didn’t have access to this sequel and time and my already massive TBR let it slip from my mind. Not so this time as I picked it up immediately after finishing The King’s Peace and I’m terribly glad I did.
CW: Suggestions of mind control. Also mentions of mass murders and attempted terrorist attacks.
The King’s Name is a shorter novel than The King’s Peace, with the latter more rightfully being two short novels published as one. One of the reasons for that becomes clear when you pick up this book: The King’s Name starts with a foreword styled like any you’d find picking up a literary classic. It’s a brilliant piece of fiction, making the world of Tir Tanagiri come that much more alive and that much more real. It’s a delightful piece of metafiction both for its accuracy and for what it says about the world’s development between the lines as well as for what it says about the events in The King’s Peace. The foreword is, essentially, a summary of what happened in the previous book, presented in a way that ties it into the worldbuilding itself. (It even has notes on linguistic changes over time! Clearly I have died and gone to readerly heaven.)
It’s also, because The King’s Name lacks any such foreword, a little bit out of place. I love the idea, but I would have preferred to have seen the conceit carried through both novels so this foreword has more strength to stand on its own.
Anyway, so as you can guess, you don’t need to have read The King’s Peace to read The King’s Name. I do, however, recommend it. Though the book is set several years after those events, Sulien will throw a lot of names at you very quickly and you’ll be playing a lot of catch-up if you don’t already know who they are. Or if, like me, you have a cruddy memory for details like names and dive straight from one book into the other.
Now, personally I adore when books assume readers will just be able to follow along because the narrator assumes it’s so self-evident, but it’s also very clear that, for all this is technically cut into three books and there’s a several-year gap between events, this is a single, continuous narrative and there’s a lot of information that Sulien won’t be repeating that’s useful to know. Most notably military terms and their usage. If you’re at home in early medieval warfare on horse, carry on. If you’re not, maybe consider picking up the first book first because Sulien spends a lot of time training and learning the ropes, so you end up learning alongside her. Sort of. (She actually elides a lot of training sessions, but she does explain. It’s a delight to read. Anyway!)
The King’s Name continues the narrative that Darien is Sulien and Urdo’s illegitimate son, but short of a few comments on how Sulien has still never slept with anyone and has no interest in marriage, the ace rep in this book is otherwise not very obvious. There’s Sulien’s general disinterest in sex or romance, but given the events of the novel they’re far and few between. Sulien’s a lot more interested in dealing with the civil war and, indeed, a good part of the book is actually about two armies negotiation before a large deciding battle as well as the battle itself.
It manages to be a quieter book than The King’s Name, which is as much down to the fact that Sulien is recounting tales from when she’s a fair bit older in life as it is to the fact that it’s much smaller in scope. Outside of Derwen I don’t think the narrative takes us anywhere save Caer Tanaga. This book isn’t concerned with how Urdo won the High Kingship over the whole of Tir Tanagiri, but about how he died. As in The King’s Name, it’s a retelling of Arthurian legend, though it’s possibly just a shade more obvious here.
It also introduces several new characters who were a delight to read about and we get to see more of the magic in the narrative become more obvious. Yes, it gets more obvious than a goddess giving Urdo a sword. Yes, I suppose that may have been a spoiler. Uh, sorry? ^_^; Morthu is delightfully nasty. The King’s Peace introduced him and we got to see some of the nastier things he’s capable of as well as the set up for the events in The King’s Name, but we don’t see too much of him in that narrative.
We don’t see much of him in The King’s Name either, but it suits him and when we do see him. Genuinely see him, that is, not just performing from the shadows and through Sulien’s filtering of “Morthu did this. Morthu did that. I should have killed Morthu years ago because Morthu is clearly evil”, it’s easy to see just how he pulled it all off. It’s one of the best villain speeches I’ve ever read, I think, and Morthu is certainly one of the best villains I’ve read.
He is creepy. His mind control is creepier. And, look. Basically, Morthu is everything I want in a villain and I love how Walton wrote him in a way where you just almost believe what he’s saying when you do hear him speak even when you know better. AND THEN HE GOES AND DOES THAT THING HE DOES NEAR THE END and you know something is coming. You just know it and just OMG WTF MORTHU.
And also if you somehow had the idea that Sulien’s hatred of Morthu was in any way unreasonable, that scene should dispel such notions because OMG. (You’ll, uh, know it when you reach it. Trust me. It’s hard to miss.)
Definitely a strong finish to the duology. (The Prize in the Game is a prequel, of sorts, featuring Emer and Conal.) I highly recommend reading through both in quick succession. These are some of the best books I’ve read to date. I heart them.
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