Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell

Rating 9.2/10
Kings of Paradise is a brilliant book, and I expect it catch fire in the fantasy community as word-of-mouth spreads

I recently learned that Richard Nell will be submitting Kings of Paradise, the first book in the Ash and Sand trilogy, into next year's Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off competition. In my mind, there’s no question of whether it will be a finalist or not. In fact, I will be shocked if it doesn’t outright win the whole contest.

This book is that good.

Clocking in at over 200,000 words, Kings of Paradise is a methodically paced and richly detailed story that primarily focuses on two teenage boys coming of age in vastly different circumstances in distant areas of the world: Ruka is a genius with eidetic memory; he remembers every detail of every book he’s ever read, details of every conversation he’s had, and learns new information at a phenomenal rate. He even recalls experiencing his own birth. However, he was born with a malformed face, and the surrounding communities label him as an outcast, a demon child. He lives in the frozen woods of the South with his mother Beyla, an influential yet shunned child of the gods, who loves Ruka unconditionally. Beyla raises and reveres Ruka, teaching him how to survive among society’s fringes: living off the land while having minimal interactions with surrounding clans. Beyla believes that Ruka’s genius and deformity mark him as a child of destiny, though it is unclear which path Ruka is destined to pursue.

The narrative shifts from this frozen land of ash to a much warmer climate in the North, a land of sand and sun and prosperous islanders who live and trade in a time of peace. Kale is the fourth son of the King of Pyu, an island empire with a strong navy and delicate political ties to an ever-increasing empire to the West. Kale’s older brothers are loyal servants to the king and court and are motivated to fulfil their princely duties to secure and strengthen their father’s empire. However, Kale views his princedom as a burden; he has a troubled relationship with his father due to his immaturity and rebellious nature, so he is placed in Navy boot camp where we first join him on his journey.

It isn’t immediately apparent where these storylines will go, and this holds true for the majority of the novel. In other stories, I might take issue with this narrative choice, but in Kings of Paradise, it is a welcome advantage. Nell is a talented writer of beautiful, elegant prose, and a knack for deep characterization that brings this cast to life. We spend a lot of time inside the characters’ heads, and I was surprised at how quickly and how deeply I came to care about their fates. As the cast begins to expand and we start rotating through new points-of-view perspectives, Nell wisely dedicates ample pages to allow for each of the new characters to breathe and connect with the reader. Every time I spent a few chapters following one character, I was disappointed when having to switch POVs, but when it was time to switch back, I did not want to leave the current story. The characters are strong-willed, sympathetic, and surprising. There are many bleak moments scattered throughout the novel, but small victories along the way had me cheering, fearful, or shocked. 

World-building is another high point of this novel. The settings are detailed and rich, and often reflect the mood of its characters. The political landscapes, environmental hazards, village hierarchies, familial values, religious sects, morally questionable law-keepers, and military forces all play varying roles in the story, with many having unique takes of their effect on surrounding societies. Some naturally play bigger roles than others, but the world feels like it is a living, breathing entity that continues on whether the characters live or die, instead of hinging on the fate and decisions of our characters. 

But that might be changing in the novels ahead. The final 15% of the book accelerates the storylines at a blistering pace, and the stakes are raised surprisingly high given the more methodical pace of the earlier sections of the book. It was a bit jarring in comparison, but this minor quibble might be attributed to the fact that I didn’t want the story to end so soon. 

I realize that I have spent most of this review talking about the characters and setting, so I want to make clear that this book has plenty of action, and much of it is grim. The violence is sudden and visceral. There are graphic and detailed sex scenes. There’s even a scene that involves cannibalism and children, and, oh yes, that’s on page 1. There’s an amount of magic, and though it doesn’t show up until the end of the story, it feels earned – a natural progression that opens exciting possibilities in the books ahead. 

Kings of Paradise is a brilliant book, and I expect it catch fire in the fantasy community as word-of-mouth spreads. It is a self-published novel, though I think that is a temporary label – other than very few grammatical or spelling gaffes, this book feels more polished and professional than many, or most, of the traditionally published fantasy books I’ve read over the past several years. This is a diamond of a novel and one that I can recommend to any fan of speculative fiction. Read this book, buy copies to gift to your family and friends. I have no doubt that this will be a fixture in the annals of truly great fantasy literature for years to come.

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