Monday, April 05, 2010

Review: King Maker by Maurice Broaddus

Escapism – in many circles it’s a dirty word as no discerning, intelligent reader could possibly read for a reason as mundane as escapism. Well, I will stand up and happily shout that escapism is absolutely the primary reason I read (it’s not like it’s the first time either). But, escapism isn’t the only reason I read and sometimes a book comes along that is absolutely not an escapist read. Generally I know in advance that a book will be such, but sometimes they sneak in and catch me by surprise. King Maker by Maurice Broaddus (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is one of those stealth, non-escapist books.

King Maker, the first book in The Knights of Breton Court trilogy, re-tells Arthurian myth in the streets of Indianapolis. On the surface it is definitely fantasy and a clever version of urban fantasy at that – and it is both of those. But the reality is much different. Whether the story of violent gang-banger, crack-head, drug-dealing, youths of the Indianapolis ghetto is an allegory for Arthurian myth, or if Arthurian myth has become an allegory for the struggles of the lost urban core of an American city, I can’t say for certain. But King Maker is a poignant vision into an aspect of American society that most of strive to ignore. King Maker is a book that I wouldn’t have chosen to read if I had known what it was really about – and for precisely that reason, it’s a book that a guy like me should read.

The tag-line for King Maker reads ‘The Wire meets Excalibur…’ and it is an apt description. The story is full of gang warfare, drug addiction, youth violence, racial issues, poverty, economic class, homeless, mentally ill, and most of the elements of society that so many of us intentionally and/or ignorantly have absolutely no understanding of. It’s bleak, it’s violent, it’s depressing, it’s eye-opening, it’s tragic, and it’s real.

And it is fantasy – Broaddus increasingly weaves elements of Arthurian myth into the story while keeping it founded in reality. That is until the end when the fantastic takes over. To maintain the delicate balance, Broaddus cleverly mingles the tough language of the street with the fantastical prose of Arthurian myth. The result is likely still quite watered down from actual street language, but none the less, a challenge at times.

One of the most effective aspects of King Maker is its setting – Indianapolis. These aren’t the hard streets of New York, Chicago, L.A., Detroit or any other of those more iconic American cities. The setting is Indianapolis – perhaps one of the most generic cities in the US – most people know of it, but don’t know it. It’s in the heart of the ‘nice-guy’ country, the American Mid-West, and certainly a place that I don’t associate with intense gang violence (though I haven’t ever actually been to Indianapolis). It may simply be that since Broaddus is from Indianapolis, he chooses to set his books there – after all, write what you know – but the generic settings adds even more weight to King Maker.

Unfortunately for such a potentially powerful novel, King Maker is terribly uneven. Fans of Arthurian myth will delight in the way Broaddus fills out the cast – the crazy, ranting, homeless man Merle is Merlin. The homeless youth Lady G, Guinevere. The gang leader Dred, Mordred. And the list goes on. Reality rules the start of King Maker, with only subtle underpinnings of the fantastic. But toward the end, Broaddus abruptly throws all sorts of fantastic elements into the story. While I found it clever (especially what he does with the fiends – drug addicts), I also felt that it totally ruined the affect of a few good people rising up against he criminal elements that control the streets.

Equally uneven is the characterization. Everyone is only a minor character – while this is good in that Broaddus does best with minor characters, it also causes problems. Who is the hero? Who am I a routing for or against? My knowledge of Arthurian myth gives me these answers, as well as hints to where the series is going in the future, but I’m not endeared to any of the characters. Yes, Broaddus is great with the back-story, the tragic, unfortunately past and present that youths experience in the streets – absent fathers, misogynistic abuse, hunger, easy money through drugs, drug addiction, casual violence, etc. It’s horrifying, but the characters soon become rather faceless, just a list of characteristics. The situation is steeped in tragic reality but the characters never become as real – particularly the ‘good guys’. Of course there are exceptions (such as Wayne and Percy), but how is this supposed to work without endearment to King, Lott, and Lady G?

From time to time any avowed escapist such as myself needs a shock to the system – and King Maker provides just that. The wonderfully creative premise and horrific reality make it a book that should be read. Unfortunately, it is a flawed work that undermines the weight of the powerful punch it should deliver. But even with its flaws, even if it stays true to Arthurian myth, giving me the knowledge of how things will end, The Knights of Breton Court is a series I will continue reading. 6.5-7/10

2 comments:

Patrick said...

I've been interesting in reading this one for a while. I wish I had more time...

I had similar thoughts on Indianapols as well but Broaddus had his reasons. I went so far as to post about it.

http://yetistomper.blogspot.com/2010/01/lost-but-not-in-translation.html

Broaddus himself replied back: http://yetistomper.blogspot.com/2010/02/indianapolis-broaddus-strikes-back.html

Neth said...

@Patrick

Ahh...I remember a bit of that exchange now - I previously didn't pay it much mind since I don't like to read much in advance about books I may read. But I see I'm not the only one who took note. I do think that King Maker will have a tough time with the UK audience (and other intenational audiences for that matter). It really is an 'American' story - though I'm sure there are many common elements with other nations/cultures.

But I do think that the blank slate setting of a generic American city works very well and makes the story even more powerful.

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