Reviews: The King of the Bastards, written by Brian Keene & Steven Shrewsbury

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Let me be up front with you, reader: so that I may spare you a few extra minutes. Perhaps you could use the savings to look into book that better fits your taste.  I read this book looking for horror; and if you’re considering it for similar reasons then I’m blowing the whistle, throwing my flag right damn here.

King of the Bastards, written by Brian Keene and Steven Shrewsbury, is not horror.

Dark fantasy is the label that goes here; and I place it on the cover with a clean palate. The taste leftover isn’t bad. But it isn’t chocolate or steak either. It didn’t melt in my mouth rather than my hand. And it didn’t’ stay with me for too long; so I doubt it’ll stay with you, just putting that out there.

Have a seat if you like, reader. I’m going to place the needle here and I’m not looking.  With any luck we’ll get the song that best fits my mood.

You can’t always get what you want.

You can’t always get what you want.

You can’t always get what you want.

And I joined in.

At least not when you’re doing book reviews.

King of the Bastards, written by Brian Keene and Steven Shrewsbury, is a collaborative tale, my first dive into a co-authored work of fiction. It’s also my first exposure to Brian Keene, a veteran author of horror and crime fiction, a writer whose dabbled in comics, and is credited with influencing film as well: 28 Days Later as a matter of fact, and The Walking Dead too — stellar works — both inspired by his first published book, The Rising, a tale he’d written in 2003. His passion for the undead is as such, so expect plenty of them shuffling around in King of the Bastards, amongst a legion of other things that don’t die…

And many that do.

Steven Shrewsbury is no slouch either: his work revolving around dark fantasy and swordplay, both of which dominate the atmosphere in King of the Bastards.  It is this foundation, coincidently, that makes the book read less like a work of horror, and more like an epic, a tale of grand adventure and conquest.

What about the story, you say? Well it starts a little something like this

Rogan was born in a savage age before the great flood. Cut from his mother’s belly by his father, Jarek, during a raid in Larak, Rogan was raised into barbarism among the fabled Keltos folk in the Caucaus Mountains, where violence was a way of life.

-From King of the Bastards, by Brian Keene & Steven Shrewsbury-

How’s that for epic? Does that tickle your fancy, reader? I certainly hope so. The rest of the book is more of the same. Toss some wizardry into the pot, some distasteful misogyny and crass dialog, some cliché characterization, and you almost got the complete entree.

So, what am I saying?

Namely, that King of the Bastards, despite its inspiration (go zombies, f**** yeah!), is only a mediocre read at best, and easily overlooked at worse. And unfortunately, there is much more to blame than its lack of what makes good horror.

I’ll start with what irked me the most

The old barbarian chuckled. “Do you know what I do with the stomachs of my enemies?”

Akibeel shook his head. “No. What do you do with their stomachs?”

“On the battlefield, I slice them open and crouch over-top them. Then I shit into the wound.”

-From King of the Bastards, by Brian Keene & Steven Shresbury-

Look, I understand that the story is called King of the Bastards, and that the king of the bastards should be the biggest goddamn poopiehead in all of Hogwarts. There is a certain tact though, I think, that might’ve made just as good of an impression without the explicit. If you spell it out for me it loses its magic (pun intended).

Further, what makes this type of dialog seems particularly questionable, is not only its lack of refinement. Really, it just plain doesn’t fit.  The world is that of steel and sorcery, warhorses and longbows. It gets worse moving forward but I’ll spare you the gory details.

The writers, however, won’t spare you the particulars: prepare your minds to see every mutilation of every battle, which wouldn’t be as bad if there was some more variety in how the action progressed to its conclusion. But there is none. And it gets old pretty quick.

What works for it though, S.T.?

Well there’s plenty of action, I’ll give you that.  It takes off quickly and seems to never let up once the balls rolling. If you’ve a thing for buckets of gratuitous brain matter without any rhyme or reason then this might just do you, at least for a short, short while. Its pace is quick and it brings you along. And it doesn’t bog you down with those unimportant things: like story depth or internal conflict.

Seriously, who cares about those things anyway? (not seriously)

Something that is truly praiseworthy is the biblical and detached feel of the narration. It’s refreshing and seems to work, to an extent. It’s quickly undermined though, once the characters open their mouths to talk. The lack of characterization doesn’t’ seem to help the problem either.

Horror, arguably, takes it root in helplessness and dread: that what ails our protagonist is beyond his capability – that what breaks the clumps of grave dirt and yanks itself free from his back lawn may be his end. And we (the reader) feel helpless as we empathize with him. Such things don’t live here, however. The king of the bastards wields both broadsword and battle axe, and longbow with pinpoint accuracy and care. He is never afraid, he loves battle, and he likes his women like he likes his pizza, hot and ready. And whether you be revenant or deity you better not cross him.

Maybe you’d be better off ordering Chinese tonight, yes?


Final Rating: 3/5

About The Author: S.T. King is an aspiring novelist with a ravenous appetite for the dark, and an insatiable thirst for the ink of the fantastique. Currently he’s a mental health counselor, helping people purge the skeletons from their closets – though admittedly, he thinks it’s more fun putting them back in. 


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