The Kingfountain Trilogy by Jeff Wheeler – Spoiler Free Series Review
|Book Name:||The Queen’s Poisoner, The Thief’s Daughter, and The King’s Traitor|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Release Date:||April 1, 2016 / May 31, 2016 / September 6, 2016|
Some of the best series I’ve read are series that have snuck up on me—ones that I’ve gone into cold, either based on a random cover, a sale or some other arcane reason. The sense of discovery that comes with unearthing a diamond in the rough adds to the reading experience in myriad ways, not the least of which is that it sears the book into your memory. Eddings was like that for me. Daniel Polansky’s Low Town trilogy was like that. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn as well. And so, too, is Jeff Wheeler’s first Kingfountain trilogy.
On New Year’s Day 2017, in the clutches of a Michigan deep freeze, I found myself staring at my bookshelf and not wanting to read anything from the backlog. Nothing was jumping out at me, so I headed to Amazon, clicked on the “fantasy” tab and was immediately drawn to The Queen’s Poisoner based on the title alone. When I saw that it was free to download with Amazon prime, I clicked the “buy” button and 16 days later I had read the entire trilogy. It was that good.
A loose fantasy re-imagining of Richard III and The War of the Roses, the Kingfountain books follow the travails of Owen Kiskaddon as his grows from childhood to adulthood in the web of intrigue that is the court of the kingdom of Ceredigion. The first volume—The Queen’s Poisoner—is told from the point of view of an 8-year-old Owen, freshly brought to the capital city of Kingfountain as a hostage of King Severn Argentine—a savior to some and a usurper and murderer to others. From there, Wheeler embarks on a tale of war, loss, espionage and magic that invokes Eddings and Feist as much as the real-life analogues of the characters he created.
Jumping nine years into the future with the second novel—The Thief’s Daughter—and another few years into the future with The King’s Traitor, Wheeler has constructed a trilogy that masterfully captures the nuances of growing from childhood to young adulthood and beyond. We spend a lot of time at Fantasy-Faction talking about “worldbuilding,” and while Wheeler freely admits to taking his inspiration for the novels from historical figures and events, he quickly and deftly builds a world that is decidedly his own, replete with a rich history, political landscape and religion.
The magic system, derived from “the Fountain” from which all life springs, is—ostensibly—very straightforward. The “Fountain-blessed” manifest powers as they get older. These powers can range from prowess on the battlefield to the ability to control others through the power of their voice or written word. When used, the magic is expended and must be restored through actions that are deeply personal and highly individual. One character may sew to replenish their powers, while another may insult people. It isn’t complex stuff, but it is interesting and ultimately fun.
Wheeler, known for his Muirwood books, is to be commended for what he’s pulled off here. I’m one of those people that right or wrong, tend to shy away from books that carry the YA label. I cringe at the thought of teenage romance and oversimplified, pedantic plotting. I’m fully aware that I’m being as unfair as I am honest, which is to say completely. These books are not YA. Wheeler takes great pride in writing books that are suitable for all ages—meaning there is very little in the way of graphic or gratuitous violence and even less sexual content. My oldest child is 8 and I’d be 100% comfortable with him reading the Kingfountain books.
Wheeler’s approach does not come at the expense of depth or complexity and never feels like pandering. In fact, I think Wheeler’s prose has a straightforward and simple beauty that is both inviting and familiar. These don’t feel like books for kids, but they feel like books kids of a certain frame of mind would love to read.
Anyone who has studied either Shakespeare or the War of the Roses will know that the history is anything but simple. The cast of characters, the network of alliances and betrayals and the influence nations abroad had on the proceedings was complex. And in using this particular slice of history as a starting point, Wheeler could have easily bitten off more than he could chew. Instead, he uses straightforward language to deftly weave the past with the present. He’s inspired by the real history but never beholden to it. What the reader is left with is a fascinating tale of a young man forced to come of age in a world that is as lonely as it is wondrous.
Writing from the point of view of an eight-year-old—particularly in the first book of a planned trilogy—is not a commercially smart move, but Wheeler has that rare, Whedon/Gaiman-esque ability to reconnect with childhood in a way that seems genuine and true. As Owen ages over the course of the trilogy, his trials and tribulations become more adult as well. But that sense of wonder never truly leaves him—and when it does, even for brief periods, Owen is self-aware enough to lament the loss.
The cast of characters populating the kingdoms of Ceredigion and Occitania are instantly recognizable (Wheeler doesn’t have a problem with tropes, and in these books they never feel stale) and immediately either sympathetic or revolting—and in the case of King Severn Argentine, both in equal measure. Of particular note are the titular Queen’s Poisoner Ankarette Tryneowy, the lovable Elysabeth Victoria Mortimer and the previously mentioned King Severn. Each has a profound effect on Owen’s life over the course of the trilogy and each is a study in depth of character.
Talking too much about the plot would spoil things, and I’d hate to do that for anyone. Suffice it to say that the world of Kingfountain and the neighboring kingdoms of Occitania and Ceredigion have been repeating the same cycle of invasion, conquest and rebellion for hundreds of years. Noble houses of both countries have turned traitor and returned to the fold. The Argentine kings of Ceredigion have fought hard to cling to power, and as the trilogy begins that power is once again under threat. Over the next three books, Wheeler takes the reader through the latest shift in power from the perspective of the nobles involved. There are betrayals, discoveries, winners and losers, and all sides ultimately suffer irretrievable losses. But like any truly human story, the characters persevere. And life goes on.
The Kingfountain books mine the same vein as The Belgariad, Riftwar and The Chronicles of Narnia. They’re a coming-of-age story steeped in magic and adventure. With the Kingfountain books, Jeff Wheeler has crafted a series suitable for readers of all ages, one that melds history, magic and fantasy into something decidedly unique. With four Kingfountain novels on the shelf and another trilogy on the way in 2017, fans of classic fantasy should take note. The Kingfountain books are the best kind of surprise—one that leaves a lasting and fond impression.