Saturday, January 29, 2011

King Maker Book Review

Title: King Maker (Book 1): The Knights of Breton Court
Author: Maurice Broaddus
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 400
ISBN: 9780857660527

The legend of King Arthur tells of humanity’s universal desire to see a hero rise, deliver the people from their helpless existence and create a “Camelot”, where all are safe, were the possibilities are endless, and where everyone matters and makes a difference. It also tells how all such utopias are short-lived, must fall, and that chaos must return while the ordinary people wait for the cycle to begin again. (Anyone who flags this as a possible spoiler has much bigger problems culturally than my over-share review.)

The story of hope combined with inevitable tragedy make the King Arthur Legend one of the Greatest Stories Ever Told. As such, it has endured more than its fair share of variations and interpretations on stage, literature, television and movies—a few good and mediocre, and most of them incredibly bad.

The invisible baggage attached to King Maker Book One by Maurice Broaddus cannot be ignored. It’s impossible to approach a new version of the timeless tale without asking, “Do we really need this version?” I’m pleased to report that Maurice Broaddus provides many compelling answers to this question, answers which led me to conclude with a resounding yes.

Broaddus sets his tale among the very real rundown slums of west-side Indianapolis. The homeless huddle under streets that Hoosier natives can point to on a map, but would rarely drive through by choice after dark. While reading this book, I’ve stumbled upon mixed online comments regarding this choice—why not New York or Los Angeles or some other, more recognizable ghetto? I applaud the decision, and not just because I recognize the area he writes about (and clearly, so does he). By refusing to relocate his tale, he reminds the reader that poverty knows no geography. The poor are as equally trapped in Los Angeles as Pittsburgh. To massacre Shakespeare: A gang shooting in any other city would be as dangerous.

With every sentence, Broaddus traps the reader in the slums with his characters. He paints a bleak picture of warring gang members born without a chance, stuck in a school system that’s given up on them. We see kids raised by drug dealers and hookers whose only options are to escape through drugs or to “rise up” through the gang system, only to discover, too late, the lies inherent in those promises.

This is the world of King James White. We begin with the betrayal and fall of his father. Frm there, we’re quickly introduced to the gang and residents of Breton Court and their rival, the crew at the Phoenix apartments. We meet their leaders, Night and Dred, their lieutenants, and the various peddlers, pushers and police caught in the middle. By the time King answers his call to destiny and assembles his posse of “knights” at the modern “round table” (an all-night greasy diner), you can think of few places in greater need of a hero than the modern-day slums of Indianapolis.

The strengths of the novel put a spotlight on what many will consider its weaknesses. King Maker tells a sweeping tale with no less than 20 important characters. In hot, tragic splashes of episodic vignettes, we meet them all, we learn their story. We visit long enough to understand their motivation; we experience their pain and entrapment. In many cases, we learn their fate, and then we move on.

Readers who prefer a more intimate tale, who expect to spend time with our hero King as he broods, ponders and finally accepts his destiny, may be frustrated with this “hit and run” approach. I had my favorite characters: the homeless Merle, King, his girl Lady G. the oddly delightful bigoted police officer Lee and his black partner, the eternally patient and understanding detective Octavia.

Other readers will find much to love and may prefer the company of the ogre twins Machaela and Marshall, or the mysterious and lethal Omarosa, or others, but the result is the same. Your favorites are sharing screen time (page time?) with a large ensemble. Even King occupies less than a quarter of the novel.

I must also admit some frustration with the contrivance of renaming the classic heroes with recognizable variations. Did Guinevere have to be named Lady G, Merlin the Magician “Merle”, along with the similarly dubbed Luther, Lott, and Wayne? But to Broaddus’ credit, he owns the contrivance, and over time, makes the reader see these characters as individuals beyond their archtypes.

This is a world where gangsters kill and mutilate at the first hint of a neighborhood snitch. Where bumbling flunkies meet merciless death in graphic and bloody ways that may traumatize witnesses—that would be the reader. This is a world where the downtrodden pedestrian ducks gunfire on a daily basis, and runs the other way to avoid witnessing an assault.When King and his crew confront the trolls, demons, and dragons, you can absolutely believe an apartment building can be assaulted in broad daylight by a horde of supernatural beasts, and that no one is going to question or even notice the more fantastic elements.

Though not everything works exactly as you might expect, King Maker is a triumph. The book works much better than any jaded reader who has “seen it all before” should have any reason to expect. So while I started Book 1 with doubts, I find myself anxiously awaiting the release of Book 2, and give Book 1 a score of 9 out of 10 TARDISes.


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