Book Review: The Withered King by Ricardo Victoria

The Withered KingThe Withered King by Ricardo Victoria
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Final Fantasy meets Dungeons & Dragons! An action-packed sci-fantasy adventure that fans of the genre will love! Victoria delivers a lively story that feels like a video game, with plenty of heart and humour along the way. The characters are interesting, the action keeps you turning the pages, the concepts are fascinating! This is good stuff! The one-liners are killer too!

I enjoy LitRPG from time to time, and this is good work in the genre. This is the story of Fionn, a veteran of a magical war who basically had a Captain America experience; he had a long magical nap as a result of the last battle he was in, and when he woke up, the world had changed. He retired from saving the world and, indeed, from the world entirely. But signs of an old foe making a reappearance bring him out of retirement, and into a position of mentoring a new generation of magical warriors.

In this universe, adventure chooses you. Some people receive what they call the Gift when they come within a hair’s breadth of death. The Gift is raw magical power, and it manifests itself in different ways depending on the person receiving it. As far as I can tell, it potentially could do almost anything, but like in video games, each person ends up finding a handful of abilities easier than others to do and that shapes the Gift’s primary form for each person.

A bunch of young university students in a world where technology and magic blend (with a lot more “pseudo” than “science,” so not a book for hard sci-fi fans) end up in the path of this growing threat. It’s Fionn’s task to prepare them for the trials ahead, because he can’t face them alone.

They must also learn to harness the powers of the Tempest Blades; twelve magical swords imbued with a soul, each with its own history and unique origin story, that were created in ancient history to fight great evil.

Fionn doesn’t want to do it, because he’s failed at teaching before, and because he’s lost people he cares about to overwhelming forces. I think I’m a lot more sympathetic to his reluctance and his PTSD than most of the characters in the book (probably because I have relatable experiences, though of course mine didn’t involve slinging raw magical force at people.) The younger members of the cast try to convince him that he can succeed where he has previously failed. Fionn has a bit of a martyr complex, and he also has to get over this before they can join forces to beat the baddie.

Each of the characters is sympathetic, flawed and interesting, and each has their own character arc that is fun to follow. I don’t want to give you any spoilers (any more than I have) so I won’t get into the details. I will say that I came to care about the characters and their fates very much, and I was even a bit teary at the end.

I also love the world. This is not your standard fantasy setting. There is an internet, television, radio, police, detectives, reporters. The inhabitants of this universe often use a combination of magic and tech to accomplish things that our technology does in our own universe, and things we can’t besides. The society and cultures within it are clearly shaped by this magi-tech, just as ours is shaped by the technology we use. I want to emphasize this because when those elements first appeared, they surprised me. I was distinctly reminded of the universe of Final Fantasy in its feel, though this is not Final Fantasy.

I gave it four stars rather than five, however, because of some of the flaws that are inherent in LitRPG. You have to understand at the outset that Victoria’s world is like that of an RPG or a video game. Time distortion is common – characters have opportunities to have dialogues and monologues while the bad guys seem to wait to attack. A bunch of people fall from a height all at once, yet there’s time to get to them all before they reach the ground. Sometimes in combat, there are what I would describe as “video game finishing moves” that seem to make little sense from the perspective of a person who knows a little bit (just a little bit, no expert here) about martial arts and swordfighting. Magic, of course, violates the laws of physics at whim, but if you’re into “magical realism,” this is not the book for you.

However, I believe that what makes a good book is a simple list of requirements. The story should draw you in and get you invested in its outcome. It should keep you turning the pages. It should not fail to suspend your disbelief enough to distract you from the story. Above all, when you finish, the conclusion should be satisfying but still leave you wanting more. Victoria manages all of this with flying colours. It’s an outstanding first novel in the sword and sorcery genre.

Victoria’s lively sense of humour is also a glowing asset. Just when you’re feeling at your lowest for the characters, Victoria will surprise you with a good laugh. This book is not flippant – the characters experience great hardship and suffering – but its tone is light, encouraging, and heroic. It’s a breath of fresh air in a literary market that’s currently enamoured of “grim-for-grim’s-sake.” I am invested in this universe and definitely look forward to any future books in the Tempest Blades series!

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