Gemma Pearson reviews the debut novel from Jodie Bond, a high fantasy adventure with hidden depths, The Vagabond King.
What would become of our world if corrupt rulers had the power to live forever? If immortality could be attained by the ingestion of a mineral compound, mined by slaves and kept aside only for the elite? In Jodie Bond’s rousing new novel, The Vagabond King this is the unfair and merciless reality for people living in the fictional empire of Asthenia. In the first instalment of what is to be a trilogy of novels, natural mortality is a losing lot and, with the help of a mineral called vish, immortal leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with Gods to rule over their ageing subjects. Thrilling and demoralising in equal measure, The Vagabond King tells the story of Threon – lost heir to his family’s throne – and his painstaking struggle to restore balance and justice to an increasingly precarious and dangerous world.
As the novel begins, Asthenia is on the brink of a divine war. The presence of three Gods, or the Vyara as they are called in Bond’s world, instils Asthenia with a tripartite system of deities that centres around the elements: earth, air, and water. Each God controls the element they embody and, in theory, should exist in harmony with their counterparts. Nevertheless, not all Gods are worshipped equally and since Deyar – the earth God and partner of the Empress of Thelonia – declared himself king of the Gods, the delicate system of earthly governance is put at risk.
During an empirical mission to convert polytheistic mainlanders to monotheism in favour of the earth God, Threon’s home in the Waterlands is raided by Thelonian soldiers. With his parents dead and the majority of their subjects killed or enslaved, Threon becomes the titular Vagabond king. Thrust into a life of poverty and destitution, he becomes a travelling musician in the Southlands, earning his keep by playing in local taverns. Nevertheless, as whispers of resistance and rumours of rebellion begin to float on the air amongst the mortals, it falls to Threon to rally enough troops to fight the Thelonian elite, liberate the enslaved, and reclaim what is rightfully his.
But Threon cannot do this alone. On his journey, among throngs of soldiers, slaves, and foreign royalty, Threon garners help from the likes of Lleu, a Thelonian soldier who becomes a secret ally to those in the resistance. Two particularly riveting female characters are also central to the resistance effort. First, we meet Savanta, a young woman touched by the God of air and given the gift of flight, but cursed to a grotesque appearance and eternal servitude to her benefactor. Later we meet Azzania who, holding the title of Guardian of Ionia, is a witch-like character with mystical abilities. Although they encounter problems along the way, these four unlikely allies from wholly incomparable worlds come together for the greater good, creating a narrative in which individual pain, trauma, and struggle can be resolved by community, allegiance and fellowship.
The Vagabond King is very plot-driven; readers learn about Bond’s created world as we experience it with the characters. Bond thrusts us straight into a world where immortality can be taken as a drug, human beings sprout wings, Gods go to war, witches thrive, and lost kings return to fight for justice. As a result, it sometimes feels as though Bond misses opportunities to mediate upon or develop character backstories. The characters in The Vagabond King are genuinely exciting, and some readers might pine for extensive backgrounds, of which Bond offers only glimpses. Nevertheless, because the novel does not end on a cliff hanger it sits nicely as a story in its own right; Bond’s imagined world has much more to give. Thus, one can hope that the second instalment of the trilogy might offer further insight into the riveting personal histories of Threon, Lleu, Savanta and Azzania.
If you have a strong enough stomach for grisly battles and some truly gruesome torture scenes, The Vagabond King offers an exciting new angle on the traditional fantasy narrative. While few fantasy authors escape comparison to the creators of Middle Earth, Narnia or Westeros, Bond offers something fresh, combining Welsh mythology with the nation’s mining history to create a rousing epic about political struggle, injustice, and rebellion, with a distinctly Welsh bedrock.
The Vagabond King by Jodie Bond is available now from Parthian Books.
Gemma Pearsonis an avid contributor to Wales Arts Review.