June 2nd, 2011


King Maker

One of my favorite TV shows of recent years was HBO's The Wire. I liked it so much mainly because it wasn't a cop show like NYPD Blue, nor a crime drama like The Sopranos, but rather something in between. It showed both sides of the coin, and treated both the good guys and the bad guys as complex, human characters with their own motivations, shortcomings, dreams, and story arcs. It was as literate and layered as TV shows get.

The reason I mention it is because Maurice Broaddus' debut novel, the dark, modern fantasy King Maker: The Knights of Breton Court I, does the same thing admirably. Touted by its back cover copy as The Wire meets Excalibur, King Maker tells the story of King James White and the economically depressed, crime-ridden downtown Indianapolis neighborhood he lives in--overlaid with the King Arthur mythos. King is Arthur, of course, reborn for the who-knows-how-many-times and on the same track as he's always been, even if he's unaware of his destiny: unite a fractured kingdom (in this case, the different housing projects with their warring drug gangs and average citizens caught in the middle) and ultimately become its one true leader. Though he himself is the son of a ruthless gangster, Luther White, King is no criminal (though neither is he a saint). He doesn't embrace the status quo of his neighborhood but he tolerates it, at least until he's pushed too far. King is guided by the somewhat crazy homeless wizard Merle, who knows full well what game they're playing; surrounded by friends like Lott, Wayne, and Percy, the beginnings of his Round Table; slowly falling in love with a neighborhood girl called Lady G; and bumping up against the rival drug crews of Night and Dred. Along the way, we meet trolls, elementals, a fae assassin, zombie OD victims, and even an ancient dragon.

The juxtaposition of Arthurian legend with a thoroughly modern setting is thrilling, and Broaddus brings an authenticity to the novel that only someone familiar with the culture and the region can provide. Though the pacing is off a bit in the middle section (200 pages into a 385-page book, it's probably better not to still be introducing characters and showing them go about their daily lives, even if they are fully drawn and interesting people) and he has an unfortunate habit of rushing through the important plot beats (the budding romance between King and Lady G happens largely off-page), I have to give props to Broaddus for his creativity. This is no simple retelling of the Arthur legend with new names pasted in, this is a genuine and compelling story in its own right. Characters are complicated and have their own motivations and goals. None of them simply go through the motions dictated by the legend. Readers unfamiliar with Malory or Chrétien de Troyes will find the novel just as enjoyable, though being able to spot the Arthurian roadmarks does add an extra layer of fun.

King Maker is one of the best modern fantasies I've read in ages. The sequel, King's Justice is out now, and the final novel of the trilogy, King's War, will be out in October. I can't wait to read them, but even more importantly, I can't wait to see what Broaddus comes up with next. If it's half as imaginative and authentic as the Knights of Breton Court books, I think Broaddus' work is going to be gracing my bookshelves for a long, long time.