Nicholas Eames’ freshman novel, Kings of the Wyld, was one of my favorite reads of 2017, a well-written, cleverly observed and often hilariously funny adventure fantasy pastiche that adhered to genre forms while gently poking fun at well-worn tropes and presenting a refreshingly positive and downright heartwarming portrait of non-toxic masculinity in action. So I was pretty hyped to see what Eames would make of this sequel, which showcases a mixed-gender cast from the point of view of a queer teenage girl. Unfortunately, Bloody Rose doesn’t quite rise to the level of excellence of its predecessor, although it’s also by no means a complete failure at the perhaps-too-many things it sets out to accomplish.
Let’s talk about that queer girl narrator first. Tam Hashford is a potentially great character with a pretty solid, if entirely expected, backstory—parents in a band, dead mom, sad childhood—that nevertheless manages to impart her with a reasonable amount of depth and complexity to carry her through her hero’s journey over the course of the novel. There’s a lot to like about Tam, but Eames leans heavily on the dead mom thing for character motivation and to craft moments of emotional resonance while never actually creating the mother as an actual character. Sure, a dead mom is sad, but Tam’s particular story of having a dead mom lacks many specific details that would have made Tam’s pain at losing her mother feel more real. Even more disappointingly, Tam’s relationships with her father and uncle are full of those sorts of specific details, right there on the page where they belong, which makes those relationships compelling and well-drawn but also serves to highlight the lack of care taken with the story of Tam’s mother. As a further consequence of this lopsided attention to detail, Tam’s relationships with her father and uncle really feel meaningful in a way that her relationship with her dead mother never quite manages to. Instead, Tam’s relationship with her mother is best represented by Tam’s relationship to her mother’s musical instrument, and let’s just say—without spoilers—that the symbolism of this instrument in the narrative is confused.
All that said, choosing Tam as the book’s primary point of view is nevertheless a smart move on the author’s part. Writing from the perspective of a relative outsider to—albeit one with some inside knowledge of—the mercenary band life, gives the book a nice balance of distance and intimacy with its subject matter. Tam has plenty of room to grow over the course of the band’s meandering adventures, and Eames pretty much nails every step of her coming of age story. I loved reading her transformation from conflicted, self-conscious girl to confident, self-assured woman. There’s just not much more satisfying to read than a well-executed bildungsroman, and in that respect, Bloody Rose is a true success.
Where Eames also shines as a writer is in the overall crafting of the serial adventures that make up the majority of the book. The chapters are largely episodic, following Tam, Bloody Rose and the rest of Fable as they make their way towards a contract of epic scale, only to find out that the job isn’t what they thought it was. There’s something pleasantly cozy about the intimacy that forms between the characters as their friendships deepen over the course of their travels. However, though there’s a lot to like about the character dynamics in Bloody Rose, they never do quite manage to match the lived-in feel of the relationships between characters in Kings of the Wyld. This is most obviously apparent when it comes to the book’s romances. The longstanding romance between Rose and Freecloud feels lopsided and a bit too told-and-not-shown (and with tragedy telegraphed through nearly every one of their interactions), and the romance that Tam ultimately finds for herself feels abruptly settled, wholly unearned, and far short of fully logical, even within the framework of Eames’s fantasy setting.
On the bright side, that fantasy setting itself feels more alive and fuller of excitement and interest than ever before. There are numerous new characters to join familiar friends and foes from the first book, and Fable’s travels expand impressively upon the world without ever becoming a self-indulgent worldbuilding exercise as epic fantasies can be prone to do. Perhaps more impressively, Eames sets out to really look at and interrogate the world he crafted for Kings of the Wyld and does so in a compelling way that naturally drives story and character growth throughout this novel. As Tam (and the reader) is more immersed in mercenary culture, there are ongoing revelations and developments that reshape her (and our) understanding of her world and the place of herself and her friends in it.
Still, I’m not certain that it’s enough to simply question the underpinnings of one’s own worldbuilding without resolving many of the central questions raised. Bloody Rose is at times deeply concerned with the role and function of mercenary bands in its world and highlights some of the injustices perpetrated by a system that treats bands as celebrities and commoditizes their work, but the ending of the book largely amounts to a return to the status quo. Some characters may have changed or evolved throughout the story, but there’s a good deal of ambiguity about whether the world itself has been fundamentally changed by even the most momentous events of the novel. One can only hope that exploration of some of the deeper themes that were given short shrift in Bloody Rose will provide good fodder for a third book—which I will certainly be looking forward to.