In Jodie Bond’s debut novel, The Vagabond King, a devastating raid by an army of immortals leaves Prince Threon with a murdered family and a stolen kingdom. But when the deposed royal sets out to claim his vengeance, free his people, and restore himself to the throne, he discovers a struggle on two fronts: human and divine. While armies of men do battle, the gods wage a war of their own, pulling strings and playing cosmic chess with mortals as the pieces. In the midst of it all, the former prince is left with little but the clothes on his back, a handful of misfit allies, and the burning desire to take back what’s rightfully his.
The Vagabond King is told in the third person with Threon and a selection of others acting as its primary POV characters. One of these is Savanta, an inventor who dared to create a Da Vinci-esque flying machine and enter the domain of the sky god, Zenith. Transformed into a winged, grey skinned creature of the air and forced into Zenith’s service as punishment, Savanta desires little more than to end her divine indenture and return to the daughter she left behind. On the other end of the theological spectrum, Azzania is a priestess of the Void. While Azzania’s own religion refuses to acknowledge Zenith and his brethren as deities, she, Savanta, and Threon find common purpose in fomenting rebellion against the earth god Deyar’s aforementioned army of immortals and the empire it serves. Lleu, one of the undying soldiers in that legion, acts as the final POV character. Born to a father from the empire and a mother from Threon’s occupied kingdom, Lleu faces intense internal conflict and an addict’s struggle with the life-extending vish drug.
While I thought this was a solid and enjoyable fantasy tale in many regards, I felt like it didn’t do enough to break the mold and distinguish itself from the rest of the genre. What The Vagabond King does offer in good, solid (if slightly predictable) plot and steady pacing, it somewhat lacks in surprises and inventive worldbuilding concepts. Threon himself is a likable enough primary protagonist, but one of the major issues I have with him is the way the majority of his character development happens off-page. He begins the novel as a pampered noble on the night of the raid, and his narrow escape is followed by a five-year timeskip that glosses over his transition to such a radically different life.
That said, there was a lot I enjoyed about this book as well, particularly from the perspective of a grimdark reader. Bond’s gods are pleasingly ruthless and manipulative, and Zenith in particular has a way of stealing the scene and grabbing readers’ attention whenever he shows up with his acid wit and cloak of stars. The author also does a good job of depicting the ugly realities of war, even when it’s the protagonists doing the violence. At times, The Vagabond King felt like it had the aesthetics and feel of classic 80’s fantasy with its band of plucky underdogs going against a tyrannical empress (complete with a pair white tigers). These fantastical elements were juxtaposed nicely with the gritty realism of addiction, slavery, and the realities of resource scarcity. The novel’s ending is strong and surprising and closes the book on a high note. Overall, I would give this book a solid 3.5 stars. If you’re looking for a fun adventure in the vein of Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms with a little more modern grit, this might be the book for you.