When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.
I shall use my arms to shield the weak.
I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to see it.
I shall use my hands to mete justice to high and low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.
Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.
When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and sisters, for I am eternal -- Pledge of the Altenerai
Howard Andrew Jones’s For the Killing of Kings is highly recommended for epic fantasy fans. Twice in the first half, I was completely floored by plot twists. The last third kept me from going to sleep. Haven’t had that much fun reading a book in a long time. This jumpstarts The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, a wild & fresh & furious epic.
Pitched as The Three Musketeers presented via the style of Zelzany’s Chronicles of Amber, it holds true. Indeed, the epic pacing is reminiscent of Zelzany; HAJ doles out action and backstory with precision. Since there are many more than three “musketeers” here, and it has more of a medieval flare, one could argue it is more of a “King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table” mashup. Instead of a singular Holy Grail, the Altenerai guard are spread out searching for many hearthstones of mysterious, spiritual, power—in this case, stones are not clearly holy.
The key story arc focuses on the coming of age of the female squire Elenai, a soldier with burgeoning magic prowess. Her rise in the Altenerai (the Queen’s guard) is compelling. On her journey she mingles with the older members who still reel from the ambiguous ending of a war seven years prior; their commander was killed, and their Queen Leonara decided to make peace rather than annihilate the barbaric Naor enemies. The Queen spread the ranks out searching for hearthstones, and distanced herself from Altenerai traditions.
I list some of my favorite elements (Re-ordered and slightly disguised to avoid spoilers): a spellcasting system that linked nature to people (hearthstones); a sculptured horse worthy of Frazetta’s Death Dealer (or a woman of the similar ilk); a humanoid made of blood; a spooky ghost-town/village; the hidden content within the Chasm Tower; an unexpected, swift betrayal.
Humor: the expected banter between friends on the front line is well-delivered. Also, there are humorous cultures like the kobalin which are honor-driven furballs (reminded me of a matured, and more belligerent, Gurgi from Lloyd Alexander’s Pyrdain series)—if they like you, they want to kill you.
A diverse cast feels genuine and fresh. Despite a requisite dose of masculinity (via violence and “charmers”), women play a dominant role in the book; to wit, Queen Leonara rules over the city of Darassus, and Feolia is governor of Alantris. Elenai mingles with the disenfranchised Altenerai as she matures. The group listed below is ~50% female; a few in the group are sexually nonbinary (orientations are not a focus of the story, just low-key truths, matters of fact).
1. Asrahn (m): Master of Squires, veteran
2. Elenai (f): Young squire under Asrahn
3. N’lahr (m): Entombed Swordsman and war strategist; his sword Irion is part of a prophecy
4. Kyrkenall (m): Archer and mad poet; best buddy to N’lahr
5. Denaven (m): Veteran like Asrahn
6. Varama (f): Weapon’s specialists and scientist, emotionally cold (reminded me of a Star Trek Vulcan)
7. Rylin: (m) James-Bond-like, charming specialist
8. Cerai: (f) Hearthstone seeking sorceress with artistic flare
9. Rialla (f): Spellcaster and forger of weapons
10. Belahn (m): An aged crazy, protector of families
11. Decrin (m): Veteran
12. Aradel: (f) Wyvern (ko’aye) riding, retired member
13. Kalandra: (f) MIA sorceress, searching for hearthstone and their origin
14. Renik: (m) also MIA, swordsman looking for hearthstones and their origin, may have heeded to a strange garden in Ekhem
A map was not necessary, but would have been appreciated.
The role of the sword Irion in the plot is fantastic. It is a fun weapon to see in action. It certainly was fated to complete a mission instead of being locked up in a display case after a stalled war. However, the hope/myth behind its potential is referred to as “prophecy” which (a) seemed like a misnomer and (b) introduced a fantasy cliché. In a book in which many dozens of story arcs are interwoven, each having believable motivations/consequences, posing a fate-driven prophecy felt out of place. The prophecy seemed to originate in a relatively private setting in an impromptu ritual (not a public discourse or professed openly) and there was some mystery about its invocation (where did the inspiration come from to link the weapon to a particular individual).
More from HAJ:
The trilogy is well underway. During the Feb 2019 Ask Me Anything (AMA) on reddit, I inquired on the release schedule. HAJ returned: “First, rest assured. Not only is the second book written, it's going through final revisions right now… The third book is fully outlined and I had begun drafting…”
Howard A. Jones has long held a passion for action fiction and throughout his career has re-introduced readers to Harold Lamb, moderated Sword and Sorcery websites, and edited the Dark Fantasy magazine Blackgate and currently Tales from the Magician’s Skull & Perilous Worlds.