Kings or Pawns

by J. J. Sherwood

Kings or Pawns CoverWhen Sherwood approached me to read and review Kings or Pawns, I remember immediately thinking––judging the book by its cover––that it wasn’t something that I would have normally picked up on my own. This is concerning on one hand, from the reviewer’s perspective, as I probably find myself outside the target audience and will likely have much different expectations of what constitutes a compelling story when compared to someone who reads a lot of standard Fantasy. On the other hand, having an outsider’s perspective mixed in with the other reviews can’t at all be bad, for both the prospective reader and, hopefully, the author, unless, of course, I were to get particularly nasty with any criticism I have to garner. (Don’t worry, I don’t plan to.)

In Kings or Pawns, the elven kingdom of Sevrigel is in a state of civil war. After the sudden death of his father, Hairem takes the throne, attempting to undo the stranglehold of the crooked Council of Elves––the appointed “voice of the people”––on the country. As a dangerous assassin starts targeting high officials in the capital and the warlord Saebellus continues to lay siege to Sevrigel’s cities, Hairem must push back against the uncaring Council to do what is right.

With Kings and Pawns, Sherwood created what feels like a vast world, and she takes us through it effectively. Firstly, most of her description is active, with someone working toward something while detailing what surrounds him, rather than, say, just standing there and telling us what he sees. And the author employs a great deal of restraint with her setting, allowing pieces of the world to open up to the reader only as it comes up in the plot, some aspects receiving a small mention, just a taste, giving us something to look forward to in future instalments, and avoiding large exposition dumps at the same time.

I, personally, wish that the author was as careful with her characters. Throughout the narrative, we were given an unambiguous tour through their thoughts. Perhaps the author was concerned that readers would be unable to relate to their actions or have a difficult time following the plot otherwise, but this effectively worked to the detriment of character development and my interest in the story as I read. Part of the excitement in a narrative that purports to heavily rely on political intrigue, for me, is trying to formulate an opinion of someone based on their body language, tone of speech, and things left unsaid. By keeping thoughts unclear and having emotions become apparent based on non-verbal clues, characters come alive and I tend to become more invested in their story. (This was actually attempted with various characters, but a great deal of the good that comes with it was lost when the major ones would tell us exactly what we should glean from the nonverbals that we saw.)

I also wish the author blended the different plot elements together more effectively. It often felt as though each smaller story that made up the narrative as a whole were written without the others in mind, with characters seemingly forgetting about something significant that just happened––all the people within Sevrigel’s capital occasionally even apparently forgetting that a war was going on, including those most heavily invested in the efforts, focusing on more mundane tasks within the city. In the same vein, multiple storylines struck me as having the potential of much greater conflict and excitement if they would only intersect. As an example––hopefully remaining vague enough to not constitute a spoiler warning––an assassin is hired to take one major character’s life around the same time he’s tasked at rescuing the king’s bride-to-be. Each plot is resolved independent of the other, despite my hopes that one would come to a head at a key dramatic moment during the other one.

At the end of it all, keep in mind that, despite any negatives I mention, reviews of Sherwood’s book on Goodreads are almost exclusively very, very positive. So, don’t let my thoughts discourage you in any way from checking it out: If Kings or Pawns looks or sounds like something you’d enjoy, you probably will.

(And, if you haven’t already done so, you still have until Sept. 10th to register for your chance to win a signed hardcover!)