Friday, July 10, 2020

L. Sprague de Camp’s Reluctant King isn’t perfect but it is soothing

I have definitely been reaching for decompressing books during the COVID-19 lockdown and continued partial lockdown. And L. Sprauge de Camp (along with Rex Stout) has been someone who has been one of my main fallbacks.

While it is true that de Camp wrote a lot of light hearted and funny stuff, the best word that I found myself coming back to, again and again, is charming. He creates worlds that might be strange and dangerous but somehow are still all right in the end. 

After reading several of his short stories, I decided that this was due time to finally read his Reluctant King trilogy, which I remember almost picking up at the library when I was young. 

The books chronicle the misadventures of Jorian of Xylar. He accidentally became the king of Xylar by catching the decapitated head of the last king. You see, Xylar only keeps kings for five years before cutting their heads off and chucking the head into the crowd to choose the next one. The very first chapter describes how Jorian escapes when it’s his turn to lose his head.

As a side note, I could not help but think of Jorian as a bard whose player had cheated and rolled straight 18s for stats. He’s a dabbler in absolutely every craft and will tell stories at the drop of a hat.

Throughout the three books, Jorian does his best to evade Xylar forces who want to drag him back for the beheading, try and get his favorite wife out of Xylar and just deal with the never ending adventures that inevitably fall in his lap. The books are one half rollicking fantasy adventure And one half political satire. The balance isn’t always even. The first book leans more towards adventure while the last one leans more towards satire. I was afraid halfway through the last book that the book would get bogged down about lawsuits. 

Frankly, the trilogy is kind of an odd read and not de Camp’s best. At the same time, I’d say this is also the ambitious thing I've read by him. At the end of the day, the moral is just ‘there is no good idea that greed and corruption can’t mess up’ but de Camp definitely explores that idea. And, seeing how this is de Camp, things ultimately do work out for Jorian. Which as much spoiler as I’ll give.

The Reluctant King trilogy was actually a great read as far as stress-coping was concerned. On the one hand, yes, it was relentlessly cynical. On the other hand, optimism ran through the books as well. The second moral was: ‘Yeah, people can be jerks but, eh, they’re basically okay too’

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