Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Nicholas Eames, author of Kings of the Wyld, must be a pretty avid D&D fan. And I’m thinking that a lot of D&D players would really enjoy this book. I certainly did, and I didn’t even play the type of D&D game that might be best exemplified in this book. Kings of the Wyld takes place in a world where fantasy mercenary bands have taken on the role that rock bands have in the real world: legendary, cult-like followings, fame and notoriety. Sex, drugs, and killing monsters.

The tagline for this book is officially “The Boys Are Back In Town” but it could just as easily have been “We’re Getting the Band Back Together”. After all, the line is repeated multiple times throughout the book (including times where the main character feels stupid saying it), and it really does encompass a good amount of the plot. Clay “Slowhand” Cooper has long since given up his rockstar mercenary days as a part of the band Saga. He’s happily married and a proud father, a simple member of the town guard. That is, until “Golden” Gabe comes back to town, asking him to come out for one last ride.

The first half of the book is the two of them hunting down the other three members of Saga to convince them to rejoin. Arcandius Moog, the group’s wizard, who’s husband has long since passed away of the rot while Moog searched for a cure – and Moog himself has now contracted it. Matrick, once the group’s rogue and now the King of Agria, who is the biological father of none of his five kids, who is desperate to get away from his adulterous wife. And Ganelon, a precise and methodical yet brutal killer, who was once abandoned by the rest of the band and has spent the last decades trapped, encased in stone but entirely aware.

Throughout all of this is Clay’s uncertainty regarding getting the band back together, and Gabe’s purpose for doing so. Gabe’s daughter, Rose, has also become a mercenary and has gone off to the faraway city of Castia, to defend it from the Heartwyld Horde, a tremendous swarm of monsters laying siege to the city. Gabe is convinced that if they don’t go and get her, she’s going to die. Most of the people they meet along the way are convinced that she’s already dead. Unfortunately, getting to Castia means traveling – likely for weeks or months – through the Heartwyld, a deadly, magical forest which even the bravest bands now do not enter.

At first when reading this book, I thought it was unusual to have Clay and not Gabe as the main character. After all, Gabe is literally the frontman of the band, and he’s the impetus of the story. He’s the one who shows up on Clay’s doorstep, begging him to get the band back together. But the more I read, the more it made sense. I think the narrator of this story needed to be able to voice Clay’s concerns, without some of the baggage that most of the other characters had with Gabe’s plan. It’s also fitting that Clay is, essentially, the bassist equivalent. Gabe is exceedingly handsome and charismatic, Ganelon and Matrick are pure lethal killers, Moog is a powerful arcanist, and Clay… bashes stuff with his shield and sword. He may not play the most critical role in combat, but he certainly does otherwise: he’s the glue that holds the band together.

The rest of the book follows their mission and their journey: going to Castia to rescue Rose. They meet quite a few interesting people along the way, forming a great cast of secondary and tertiary characters. There’s a lot of aspiring young bands who look up to Saga, as well as the cocky ones who just want the old geezers to get out of their way. Their former manager, Kallorek, is a great minor antagonist, especially with the given plot twist that Gabe’s wife left him for Kal several years ago. Our primary antagonist, the druin Lastleaf, is also a sufficiently evil and terrifying villain for a party clearly of such high level.

Ordinarily, I might complain that the “getting the band back together” phase of the book takes so long, but not here. Here it felt like each step of the way is crucial, like everything takes the amount of time it should. It really is an excellently paced book. I also… might still complain a little bit about the comparative lack of female characters. I mean… would it kill them for there to be a female member of the band? Don’t get me wrong, the female characters that are in the book are good: Ginny and Tally, Clay’s wife and daughter are well-done; Lady Jain and the Silk Arrows are a great bit of fun, even the antagonist women like Lilith and Valery (and later Sabbatha/Larkspur) are entertainingly bad. But it’s not the same as having a female main character, which I would have appreciated here.

This book really, truly does remind me a great deal of a D&D campaign. The one you play in college, for years and years, with the same characters and the same DM, and over the years, people grow apart. They move to different cities, they get married, they have kids, they get real jobs. But then they get back together for one last epic session, years later, as level 20 adventurers, and they know that they’re closing out on a high note. It’s really well-done; I felt like I was there not only for this last session, but for all the group’s early adventures. Whenever you get a group of RPG players together, we always end up swapping stories of the craziest, weirdest, funniest stuff that’s happened at our table. None of the anecdotes in this book would be out of place in the slightest.

Of course, this may very well not be the last ride of Saga. The book is listed as “The Band #1”, implying more in this series. This would certainly be welcome; I really enjoyed this book and I’d love to see more adventures with these characters. You know, get the band back together for real, go on tour, show all these young whippersnappers how it’s done by a real band. And goddamn does this book make me want to run a D&D campaign in this setting.

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