by Maurice Broaddus, fantasy (2010)
Angry Robot, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-85766-052-7
Maurice Broaddus's King Maker is the first book in the urban fantasy series The Knights Of Breton Court. It's a genuine series, with continuing story arc and the same recurring characters throughout the books in the series, and more interestingly, it's based on the legend of King Arthur and his Round Table. Except, instead of knights and horses, we have thugs and pushers on the streets of Indianapolis armed to the teeth with guns and knives warring with vigilantes and cops. The publicity materials compare this series to "The Wire meets Excalibur", and while I'm not sure whether the King Arthur stuff is that prominent here, this story definitely goes down the wire when it comes to the struggle between good and evil.
King Maker is actually the story of how the "knights" are founded. For a long time, we have our central characters running around doing their own thing, their lives and destinies intersecting only later in the story. First, we have King James White, who is tired of life on the streets. He can't escape his destiny, however, as the streets are currently ruled by two warring factions. One, led by the mysterious Night and his lieutenant Green, used to reign over prostitution and drug pushing while King's father Luther oversees all the number running and robbing in the area. However, Luther was killed by his treacherous sidekick who was secretly working for Green. Now, Luther's void is filled by Dred and his lieutenant Baylon. Dred is King's half-brother, the result of Luther's ill-fated affair with Green's woman, the mysterious Morgana.
And then we have Wayne Orkney, who runs the sole shelter for troubled teens and the homeless in the neighborhood. He's a nice guy who can take care of himself, but he may be fighting a lost cause if he wants to make the streets a better place. Among the folks he comes into contact with are two troubled teenage girls, the tough Lady G and the saucy Rhianna. Lott Carey is someone who has finally left the streets to pursue a legitimate livelihood - he's a FedEx delivery guy - but his friendship with King often sees him coming back to the streets to lend a hand or two. As you can predict, Lady G and Lott share a close rapport, much to King's secret dismay as he is attracted to Lady G himself. (The guys are in their early to mid-twenties, so the age gap isn't big enough to be squicky.) Rounding up the folks who would soon be in King's entourage are Merle, an old white homeless crackpot who may be wiser than he seems to be, and Percy, a simple young man who dotes on Rihanna and Lady G in a protective big brother manner.
We also have the cops, the poor white dude Detective Lee McCarrell who would tell you that he is not racist - it's just that most of the scums he has to deal with happen to be Black, so there - and Olivia Burke, his partner who alternates between being bemused and feeling resigned that she's viewed by the folks as the House Negro, the token Black cop that none of the locals wants anything to do with. As Dred and Night go at it, and the folks who will soon be King's entourage find themselves dragged into the mess one way or the other, the cops have a fabulous time trying to figure out what is going on.
Oh, and since this is an urban fantasy, there are mysterious woo-woo going on here, and I'm not just talking about Merle's vague rambling that King is somehow special. Dred brings in some paranormal accomplices to clear up Night's turf, while it quickly becomes apparent that Night and Green are... not quite human, let's just say. Throw in a seductive fae, Omarosa (no, not the one from The Apprentice), who for her some mysterious purposes begins to sabotage the crime bosses, and the party is truly under way.
King Maker takes some getting used to. No, it's not because of the presence of urban lingo - if I can understand what these guys are saying without having to refer to Urban Dictionary, I think most people can too - it's because of the constant head hopping. Since there are already a large cast of characters, having to keep track of who is thinking what also adds to the effort I have to make. Fortunately, I get used to things after a while and it's smooth sailing from thereon.
And it's a very entertaining, if often violent, story. What I like about this story is how the author doesn't sugarcoat things - the heroes themselves aren't above doing some shady and underhanded things or two. If you are looking for clear cut good guys and bad guys, well, you may have problems getting over the fact that the good guys here aren't saints. Their hands are dirty too, sometimes with blood. But they have their own code of honor, and they do want to make things better for themselves, so they end up on the side that... well, they are much nicer than the bad guys, at least. The life of the streets here is portrayed as harsh, bleak, but not completely hopeless. Many of its populants are what they are because they don't know better and they have no better options in life. Yes, the author gets on his soapbox now and then, but he is pretty light-handed about it and these elements are smoothly integrated into the story, sometimes even with humor. The author doesn't give me, the reader, a romanticized or idealized portrayal of life on the streets - everything, good and bad, is laid out here. I appreciate that, and I find my vicarious glimpse into this world a memorable one.
The author has created a gritty and hard world here, so much so that a part of me actually finds the paranormal elements in the story tad distracting. While I love the violent cannibal trolls, I find the other paranormal elements actually less interesting compared to the gang politics on the street. The characters by themselves are not too memorable, but that is understandable, I feel, given how large the cast is. There isn't much opportunity to flesh them out completely, considering how action-driven this book is. But Percy is an interesting character, and I wonder whether he has any special powers hidden up his sleeves, especially considering his parentage. Lady G is also a memorable character in that she is not a victim - she's tough. Poor King comes off as rather flat compared to these characters, and he's supposed to be the anchor character of the series. Oh well, there are still other books for him to get a more interesting personality. Which brings me to another point: by the last page, some of the most interesting secondary characters, many of which are far more interesting than the main cast, seem to be permanently killed off. I can only hope that the author hadn't prematurely shot himself in the foot by killing off the fun villains and letting the boring cardboard main characters live to see another day. There are some loose ends by the last page, which is to be expected considering that this is the first book in a series, but there is enough decent closure for readers who do not wish to keep reading the series.
All things considered, King Maker kicks off a series on a satisfying note indeed. I have no idea what to expect when I pick this one up, but I'm definitely intrigued enough to check out the next book. So far, the pacing and the action are good enough to make up for any emotional detachment I feel toward the characters.
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