The Sleeping King: Like reading the script of a LARP session

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Sleeping King by Cindy Dees & Bill Flippin fantasy book reviewsThe Sleeping King by Cindy Dees & Bill Flippin

Fantasy role-playing games come in all flavors and styles: from the well-known tabletop format of Dungeons and Dragons, to live-action role-playing (LARP) sessions in which players craft armor and characters, to video games based on the D&D format (Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights), to chat forums in which players create text-based adventures, to card-based games like Magic: The Gathering, there truly is something out there for any interested person to explore. Cindy Dees, a best-selling author of suspense and thriller novels, and Bill Flippin, the creator of the Dragon Crest LARP game, have brought the world and characters of Dragon Crest to the page in The Sleeping King, the first in a planned epic fantasy series.

Sequel

Will, a cobbler’s son with a hidden legacy and some magical talent, and Raina of the House of Tyrel (with an astonishing capacity for healing magic) are maneuvered into a quest to wake an elven king who has been trapped in a magical slumber since time immemorial. Forces beyond anyone’s understanding have ben manipulating events, perhaps for centuries or millennia, and these two teenagers find themselves working together to find a magical crown and save their world, Urth, from its Kothite ruler. Along the way, they gain and lose various allies who serve their own needs, are threatened by a corrupt local governor, and are given hints as to the tremendous destinies which lie within their reach. The quest and its scenarios hit many of the expected notes for any epic fantasy series, though there are a few interesting elements here and there.

Urth, the world in which The Sleeping King is set, would appear to be quite large — a journey from the Imperial Palace to the colony of Dupree is expected to take three months by ship — and though many locations are named, only a few are explored in detail. The Forest of Thorns is where most of the questing takes place, and though Will and Raina set out from Dupree to reach that forest, I’m not really sure how far apart the two locations are or where they are in relation to the Imperial Palace. Since I’m a total novice when it comes to the Dragon Crest game, a map would have been greatly appreciated; my hope is that one will be provided at some future date on the game’s website. A great number of peoples and races populate Urth: various kinds of elves (solinari, pyresti, kindari, zinnzari, etc.), dwarves (errock, terrakin, etc.), lizardmen, and humans all live in uneasy peace together while their villages suffer periodic incursions from orc or troll forces. I’m sure that the delineations between types of elf or dwarf make far more sense if the reader is already steeped in Dragon Crest lore, but I would have appreciated a few more details into how a kindari can be the twin sibling of a silvani if they’re nominally different. The information provided for kindari culture and their daily life is really wonderful, and I would have loved to see that level of world-building spread out throughout the text.

The characters are a little uneven, which is understandable when you consider that many (if not most) of them were created by people other than Dees and Flippin. In the Authors’ Afterword, the “creator and player” appreciation list is quite long, and I’m not sure what the mechanics were of taking “actual characters and events” from ongoing LARP campaigns and translating them into The Sleeping King. There are a lot of characters in the novel, and while a few are engaging and interesting, many others seem to exist only to nudge the plot in a certain direction; some even vanish entirely from the narrative with no rhyme or reason, and their absences are not commented upon by other characters. Once High Lord Tyviden Starfire is banished from court for embarrassing behavior — in the first chapter — he is never seen again. Raina’s childhood friend Justin sets out to follow her in chapter nine, but the narrative doesn’t return to him at any point afterward. Chapters are frequently split between points-of-view of various characters who are often on different continents, and the shifts in tone and location can be quite jarring. One character, in particular, switches between normal speech and oddly stilted dialogue arbitrarily, which makes for a strange reading experience.

There are some inventive details which offer tantalizing hints at the larger world beyond what the reader sees in The Sleeping King. Emperor Maximillian III’s thrones are carved from obsidian and shaped to look like living black flames, and I’d love to know more about the history of his 3200-year reign and what motivates him as a leader. Will and Raina’s quest to wake the sleeping elven king will necessitate usurping Maximillian’s control of Urth, and though we’re told repeatedly that he’s a tyrant who must be overthrown, there isn’t much evidence of tyranny. He eviscerates oracles and magically resurrects them for interrogation, which is awful, but I don’t get a sense of world-wide oppression. As far as I can see, he’s much less dangerous and totalitarian than governor Anton Constantine, whose greed and shoddy leadership absolutely deserves a revolution. Had Will and Raina’s goal simply been to turn the citizens of Dupree against their governor, with hints of a larger and grander societal change to come, I would have been much happier.

Another neat detail was a prophecy which kills the oracles who are compelled to speak it: upon delivering those ill portents, the oracles have no memory of what they’ve just said, and if forced to try to recall or relive the oracular moment, they immediately (and painfully) expire. I wish we’d been given some insight into the perspective of a Fae-touched person who is possessed by visions but who cannot remember them. At face value, I know why a prophecy of “good coming to destroy evil” is a quick way to set a novel’s plot into motion, but if I don’t know why it’s happening, I’m immediately distrustful of who the agents of “good” and “evil” claim to be and what their actions will actually accomplish. It’s difficult to determine whether that ambiguity is part of Dees’ design for the series, since so little is seen of Maximillian III, and Will and Raina are unequivocally presented as the heroes of this tale.

The pace of The Sleeping King is slow, taking over 300 pages to get Will and Raina into the same room and ready for their quest. Dees and Flippin fill those 300 pages with world-building details and chapters in which Will and Raina toy with their newly-discovered magical abilities and test out the limits of their independence from parental oversight. The first rumblings of a rebellion against the Empire are also explored, with many whispered conversations regarding mutiny. Queen Gabrielle of Haraland is part of this rebellion, but only receives information on a need-to-know basis, which means that very little information is given to the reader. This was intriguing at first, but as I realized that she was never going to be brought into the inner circle of rebels, I became frustrated at the machinations which were hinted at in broad strokes, but never illuminated in more detail. The remaining 200 pages gallop toward the ending and the set-up for future novels, and my understanding is that those novels will be written in a way which reflects the events as they happen in LARP adventures and in the Dragon Crest forums.

For some readers, The Sleeping King may be a gateway to the fun and creativity of fantasy role-playing games. For others, it may spur hefty amounts of nostalgia. For me, it was a reminder that my D&D character sheets need to be updated, and that I really should buy a new set of dice. Even though the novel wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, I hope reading it inspires people to explore or revisit some fantasy experiences beyond the printed page. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go dust off my Neverwinter Nights CDs and spend some quality time with the character generator. I haven’t made a Chaotic Neutral Half-Elven Shadowdancer in ages.

Publication date: September 8, 2015. The Sleeping King is the start of a new fantasy series by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Cindy Dees. Dees has won a Golden Heart Award, two RITAs for Category Suspense and Adventure and has also twice snared RT’s Series Romantic Suspense of the Year. She is a great storyteller, and the adventures in her more than fifty novels are often inspired by her own life. Dees is an Air Force vet-the youngest female pilot in Air Force history — and fought in the first Gulf War. She’s had amazing adventures, and she’s used her experiences to tell some kickass stories. But as much as she love romances, Cindy’s other passion has been fantasy gaming. For almost twenty years she’s been involved with Dragon Crest, one of the original live action role-playing games. She’s the story content creator on the game, and wanted to do an epic fantasy based on it, with the blessing and input of Dragon Crest founder Bill Flippin. The Sleeping King is the first in an epic fantasy series, featuring the best of the genre: near immortal imperial overlords, a prophecy of a sleeping elven king who’s said to be the savior of the races . . . and two young people who are set on a path to save the day.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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5 comments

  1. I flinched when I read that the MCs don’t even get “in the same room” for 300 pages. I think if I played LARPs this would appeal to me, but I don’t and I’m tired of check-listy world and character building.

    • Reading about the adventures was not as fun as I imagine participating in them would be. And if world-building takes 300 pages, I expect to have a more complete picture of the world and its people than I did.

  2. Sounds like an interesting creative methodology, even if not something I’ll probably pick up. Though I might now go caress the character sheet of my bard, Amok. Mmmmm, my precious . . .

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