City of Kings by Rob J Hayes

(8.7/10) A great dark fantasy tale featuring war, betrayal, monsters and utter bastards that will bludgeon the grimdark scene into submission.

I received an advanced reader copy of City of Kings in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Rob J. Hayes for the opportunity. 

After having thoroughly enjoyed Hayes' Best Laid Plans duology I jumped at the chance to read City of Kings early - which is set in the same world. The action here follows the events of Hayes' The Ties That Bind trilogy and features many characters from those books. That being said though it acts as a complete standalone. I've not yet read the previous trilogy but still found City of Kings to be a fast-paced and thrilling grimdark adventure with intense levels of brutality. For readers who are familiar with his earlier tales, I can tell there are lots of nuggets and little intricate details throughout regarding characters, relationships and the world which will probably delight.

Rose and her husband The Black Thorn have united the Wilds against the noble Blooded houses. In fact, only 3 of the great Blooded families still remain and they are holed up within a giant and impenetrable fortress. Although Black Thorn was previously one of the most notorious and infamous criminals even seen, it's Rose that 'wears the trousers' in the relationship and leads the army. Rose is pregnant and wants her enemies eradicated before her child is born. Her advisors insist it is impossible to take the city in that timeframe but Rose will not heed that advice and that's where the narrative really begins.

My favourite element of City of Kings was the characters. There are five point of view perspectives and I'm pretty certain all were main characters in The Ties that Bind. As it was my first time being acquainted with these players, I was relieved that after a couple of chapters I felt like I really knew them which highlights Hayes' skill at creating interesting, exciting, and colourful bastards to follow. Example characters are as follows:
* A scarred axe-wielding, one-eyed, three-fingered warrior who was once the most wanted criminal in the wilds 
* A traitor noble who betrayed his father, the leader of the Blooded army. He is essentially a drunk spy who reminded me as a mix of Tyrion (ASOIAF) and Jalan (The Red Queen's War). He always had a quick quip on his tongue and a drink in his hand but is braver than people give him credit for and he also has some strange powers that are only briefly touched on here. He was my favourite character. 
* A small but intensely loyal female assassin who previously had parts of her face burned away by witch hunters
*A warrior tribesman who abandoned his fellow brothers and now at every turn they want him murdered. He is an expert bodyguard and has some interesting powers where he can see auras. Almost like a mood ring - a colourful haze will float around people he looks at and he can sense intentions, feelings, and sometimes predict what will happen next following this. 

These players may sound like utter scumbags or bastards you'd love to hate and honestly, they are but throughout my reading experience they were incredibly likable and I found myself rooting for them even when they were doing some horrendous actions and deeds. However much you care for the characters though, in this wicked world every single member of the ensemble is expendable. All the perspectives presented are from Rose's side of the army as they are looking to take hold of the city. It creates great affinity with the players but I believe it would have been interesting to see what a character or two within the city walls were thinking about their plight, scenario, and current position in the war. 

This is the 6th book within Hayes' First Earth Saga (excluding The Bound Folio which is a short story collection.) The created world is so detailed and seems like a character in its own right. There are layers upon layers of depth, back histories, and past dramas/ friendships/ hatred that leak from the pages organically. The world building never seems forced or unnecessary. In addition to one of the bloodiest wars imaginable that borderlines on genocide City of Kings also features giant trolls, Drurr necromancers, and the undead. I actually wanted to see more of this side of the narrative but I analyse that they are here because they are brutal, it's a fantasy world but also that Hayes' may be presenting to readers that the humans are the real monsters. Hayes has created a giant world in his First Earth books yet here it is mainly set around the city. No places visited in Best Laid Plans are seen here and I imagine that this is more streamlined than his other works where characters are often in different locations across the relevant maps. 

Hayes writes some of the darkest and most brutal fiction around and he's upped the ante even further here. Events and actions are often terrible and bloody but Hayes' smooth prose and elegant descriptions heighten the scale of horrendousness. The pacing is excellent, the writing is fluid and the chapters are shortish which adds to the 'just one more chapter' bug. The latter is one of the reasons I devoured this tale and Rob's other stories in a handful of days. City of Kings is thrilling, exciting and gruesome. Mostly unpredictable with a few twists that utterly blindsided me but I did predict one or two events before they happened including a loss of a limb scene. I don't rate this quite as high as Rob's Best Laid Plans trilogy as I loved the originality he presented with his pirate mixed with magic, witch hunters, and monsters setting. Alongside Blackwing, The Fifth Empire of Man was my highest rated book of last year though. This is more from the Game of Thrones school of fantasy, albeit far more brutal which isn't a bad thing, I personally just love complete uniqueness and originality in my fantasy at the moment more than anything. However, if I'd read his previous trilogy and knew the complexity and vastness of his overall created world then that might not be the case so this rating is subject to change as and when I approach his previous books. After recently winning the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off it seems like Hayes is going from strength to strength and is an expert in consistently releasing high quality works. 

The ending is utterly shocking and brutal. I'm pretty certain it made my author friend and fellow reviewer C.T. Phipps cry like a little child! :) It all wraps up nicely but does sprout a few threads of where the action could go next as I think Hayes is planning at least another trilogy in his First Earth saga. This tale runs concurrently with Best Laid Plans as at the ending one of the characters says that he is off to help Drake in the pirate war. City of Kings is simply a great dark fantasy tale featuring war, betrayal, monsters and utter bastards that will bludgeon the grimdark scene into submission. Hayes is my favourite grimdark author that's currently writing.

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