Slaying a Tyrant starts off with the titular tyrant and shows his disregard for the norms of his culture. Isn’t that the nature of a tyrant? A ruler, no matter how absolute his power, that stays within the bounds, formal or informal, placed on his power is not a tyrant. One who breaks no formal law, but who violates informal norms, often is a tyrant.
A book that violates informal genre norms, however, has no standard designation. Sometimes reviewers herald it as a great book. In other cases it’ll be critics pan it for failing to meet genre expectations. Most often, however, it is just a good read that could have been better. For better or worse, the last is Slaying a Tyrant.
Before I get to how it could have been better, let me tell you why I enjoyed it. Its protagonist, Vinta, is complete. Long ago, Ursula Le Guin taught me the measure of a novel is “can I remember the protagonist’s name once I finished”. By that measure, Slay a Tyrant is a good novel. Not only do I remember Vinta, but several other characters, including her love interest Garion, the titular Tyrant, Obiar, and two friends of the love interest bound to the tyrant, Hogru and Santir.
The fight scenes, and despite this being primarily a romance the fight scenes are a vital part of the plot, engage the reader and generate tension. They are not perhaps as detailed or graphic as you get in an action novel. They are, however, not perfunctory with action that comes across as realistic and do not have a forgone conclusion.
The world building, this is a fantasy novel after all, is solid, with interesting details that are rarely superfluous to the story. I would have liked more detail, but nothing strike me as wrong. The glimpses we do get kindle a desire to know more about the world.
If the preceding sound like a good book that is because Killing a Tyrant is a good book. It is a fun read. I will read more by the author. If you want a recommendation for a romance novel in a swords and sorcery fantasy setting, this is a good choice. So, why only three stars instead of more? Well, a good book whose author has earned another shot at my beer money and that I will tell other people to read is the essence of three stars.
The sad part is this book could have been so much more. Everything needed to create a four or even five star book is here. The imagination, story, and characters are all up to that level. It is in the execution that the book falls short.
The first and most noticeable issue is the pacing. The book telescopes the first several months of the relationship between our leads, Vinta and Garion, into a few pages. Her family hires him to train her for an upcoming tournament that will serve as a substitute for war among several nations. When Garion is hired he insists on training her in secret. Then the entire training period, six months, is off screen. This means we miss the building of care on the romance side of the novel and most of the martial bonding on the swords and sorcery side.
If this was the only pacing issue, I would call it a creative choice that maybe didn’t work as well as the author hoped. However, once they return to her clan’s home and the tournament begins the pacing is uneven. The big final combat featuring Vinta at the end of the tournament, that will decide not only the fate of the major characters, but several minor ones and whole nations, is anti-climatic and without the tension it deserves beyond concerns about Vinta’s ability to survive. It matters, at least in an emotional sense, only in the romance plot, not the tournament one.
The tournament plot also has issues. As one might expect in a tournament of champions that substitutes for war, there are a lot of political machinations. The politics work well enough and provide some of the world building. However, again pacing rears its ugly head with the world building justifications revealed as the politics happens. Especially problematic is the overuse of betrayal with no foreshadowing. One out of the blue betrayal is one thing, but a second within the same family strains credibility. Despite these problems, I had fun reading the book. It was never plodding. The pacing issues took the form of being rushed. I carried about the leads and several minor characters. I felt satisfied when I finished.
Would I recommend this book? It is interesting enough I downloaded a sample of the next book which is how I maintain a “to read” list. With that I’ll give it a qualified recommendation. If you like fantastic romance with a bit of action, I think you will enjoy it. If you are after more action and adventure, I’d say give it a pass.