Kings of Paradise (Ash and Sand #1) by Richard Nell is probably my favorite grimdark novel of 2018, so if you expect this review to be anything other than gushing then you have come to the wrong place.
The books follow the perspective of three protagonists with Ruka, Kale, and Dala. Ruka is a deformed son of a witch that watches his mother be killed and swears revenge on the society that did it. Willing to do whatever it takes to survive; he becomes a cannibal early on and yet remains one of the most sympathetic characters. Kale is a prince of an island paradise and a spoiled brat like Jezal of The First Law Trilogy but has potential to be more. Dala is a rare female grimdark protagonist that is born a poor victim but decides to do whatever it takes to escape the life she’s leaving behind.
Part of why I like the novel is that it is both authentic as well as far more multi-cultural in its world. This is not just a set in your typical faux-Medieval European landscape but a volcanic Iceland, a Polynesian set of tropical islands, and a pseudo-Chinese Empire. The contrast between the societies, their taboos, and cultures provides a genuine sense that this is a real place with its own history.
Ruka’s story arc is harsh, bitter, and full of cynicism from beginning to end. He’s the perfect grimdark protagonist because he’s a monster yet faced against a society of hypocrites. Ruka wants to be a person who gives back to his people but the only thing he’s known from birth has been brutality. He loved his mother and vice versa but that was about his only healthy human relationship. He reminds me a bit of both Caliban from The Tempest as well as, of al people, Sabertooth from the X-men. Specifically, the comic book version who is a wild animal but smarter than he appears.
I was most fond of the Dala sections despite the fact they are the least to deal with the overarching main plots of Ruka’s people planning to invade Kale’s homeland. A young woman learning to master politics and being every bit as ruthless as a man in her position is not normally how these stories go. Dala becomes a truly vicious and still sympathetic character that would be a villain in most other stories.
I’m a bit iffier on the Kale sections because they’re such a huge contrast to the Ruka and Dala ones. Kale grew up in immense privilege and his primary problem is that he’s in love with his brother’s fiance. He’s such a starry eyed romantic, you get annoyed whenever he manages to coast by the majority of problems that face him. I mention the comparison to Jezal but I was much more into that character’s romantic relationship(s) than I am with Kale. Even so, there’s a lot of interesting politics going on behind-the-scenes in Kale’s sections that our protagonist is only dimly aware of.
The morality on display by our heroes is one of brutal pragmatism. Ruka is someone who has higher goals but is willing to do anything to achieve them. Dala is the same. The former wishes to “break the wheel” as Daenerys does in Game of Thrones while Dala wants to reform her religion to live to its stated principles. Kale is someone who has never bothered to question how his world works until it turns against him. Then Kale is forced to learn about other cultures and question if anything he grew up believing is right.
The world of Ash and Sand is an incredibly well-developed one with intricate cultures, supporting characters, as well as allusions to a wider world we only touch upon. I was fascinated by all the stories within and eagerly bought the sequel the moment I finished it. It is a cynical, dark, and yet fully realized world that I believe fans of other grimdark series will love.