This book was a lot of fun. It was a good, old fashioned fantasy adventure novel, the first of a trilogy. I enjoyed it immensely.
Johnston does an outstanding job of juggling a fairly large cast of characters for such a short book, imbuing each of them with their own personality and characteristics. They include Kron, a young boy he befriends, his friend the city guard sergeant, a healer and his wizard mentor, the crime lord Belgar the Liar and four of his henchmen, and two swords for hire. That he is able to develop the characters to the depth that he does while maintaining the relentless pace speaks well of his ability as a writer. Along the way he drops tidbits about the greater world, its history and geography. And he does it all without harming any swans.
Here’s the basic setup:
The main character is one Lucius Tallerus, who is better known as Kron Darkbow. Tallerus has returned to the city of Bond, where he lived until his parents were killed. After their murders, he was taken in by his uncle, recently deceased, and trained as a warden for the Prisonlands. Now that his uncle is dead, Tallerus has returned to seek revenge on the person responsible for murdering his parents. He adopts the identity of Kron Darkbow and seeks his revenge. He dresses in black, prowls rooftops, has a grappling hook and an assortment of tools he carries on his person. In short, he bears a strong resemblance to a certain Caped Crusader. But whereas Batman, at least the one I grew up reading (I haven’t followed the title for a few years now) didn’t kill under any circumstances, Kron has no scruples against taking the life of someone he feels deserves to die.
He’s not a superhero by any means. He makes mistakes, costly ones at times, and he is capable of being injured. More than once, Kron is almost killed. He’s much more realistic and fleshed out as a character than many superheroes.
The other intriguing character was Belgad the Liar. At one point Johnston states that Belgad doesn’t like to lie; it seems the nickname has followed him around for years. He probably picked it up in junior high, where the names given to you stick with you for life. He’s a barbarian from the north who has risen to a knighthood and place of prestige in the city, although not exactly ethically. Like a better known barbarian who became king of Aquilonia, Belgad has grown beyond his origins to become an able administrator and businessman.
I found him to be the most interesting character in the book, and certainly the most sympathetic and likeable viallain, if you can call him that, I’ve encountered in years. He doesn’t like killing or stealing; they’re bad for business. When he came to power, he dissolved the thieves guild and the assassins guild for those reasons. He still practices extortion and doesn’t hesitate to use strong arm tactics, but despite his fearsome reputation, he didn’t seem to me to be that bloodthirsty. Nor were his inner circle of henchmen. I got the impression at times that Belgad would have preferred to run his empire without violence at all, but that it was a necessity in his line of work. He certainly wasn’t the psychotic megalomaniac many crime lords are portrayed as being.
Johnston took two characters whom he could have portrayed as coming directly from central casting, fitting their stereotypes, yet he chose to make them human, and in doing so, he transcended the typical generic revenge fantasy. There’s a reason some many heroes in fiction come back to seek vengeance for deaths, especially the deaths of parents. Those type of stories speak to us on a primal level. Many us of would like to do the same if we were to find ourselves in such situations. I think that’s why these types of plots remain popular. To use this plot is not a lack of originality on the part of an author. The lack of originality comes with the author fails to do something new with it, and in this Johnston has succeeded admirably. I found this to be a fresh take on familiar tropes, something hard to pull off.
Don’t think this novel is merely some postmodern slice of life character study, either. It’s full of action, intrigue, and swashbuckling. It would make a good movie. Unfortunately , Hollywood would probably screw it up.
There are other characters with their own stories in the book, and they all intertwine with Kron and Belgad’s story. Until the final chapters, there’s no dark lord with a demon horde. That will change in the rest of the trilogy, but this first book and its introduction of the characters is a story of conflict on a deeply personal level. I’m looking forward to what happens in the rest of the trilogy, so much so that when I finished Citiy of Rogues, I went and bought the rest of the trilogy and the sequel and prequel. I’ll report on them in the coming months. Until then, I recommend this one.