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REVIEW: Counterfeit Kings by Adam Connell

REVIEW SUMMARY: Refreshingly gritty story in which I could not get fully immersed.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After a failed assassination attempt, the King goes into hiding and is sought after by his ex-bodyguard and a host of bad guys.


PROS: Wonderfully gritty feel; detailed and memorable characterizations.

CONS: Imbalanced pacing and writing style; suspension of disbelief wavered.

BOTTOM LINE: Meh. Hard to get immersed in the story.

I truly believe that you can’t judge a book by its cover but that’s not to say that a cover can’t be eye-catching. The first thing that brought my attention to Adam Connell’s Counterfeit Kings was indeed its striking cover, complete with its spooky-looking, medical portrait of a de-skinned human head. [Shiver] It’s a great mood-setter for this story.

Horrocks, a salvager and the King’s former bodyguard, is called upon by the Queen to find the missing King who’s gone into hiding after a failed assassination attempt that took the life of one of his sons. With the King gone, the threat of civil war marches ever-closer. However, if Horrocks can find the King before the 20 day deadline, peace will once again be had.

But things aren’t going to be easy for Horrocks. First, he must look after his pregnant wife who insists on coming along. He must also race against Guilfoyle, a dangerously imbalanced salvager who, under more normal circumstances, hijacks dead bodies and peddles them back to their families. Guilfoyle was hired by the Bastards, the King’s illegitimate children who have banded together to claim legitimacy and, more importantly, inherit the kingdom once the deadline expires. Also on hand is Rouen, a roguish mine owner with a serious dental-pain fetish who, greedy son-of-a-gun that he is, just wants the kingdom for himself. And, lest we forget, there is some question as to the location of the Ringers, the so-called “counterfeit kings” who have been surgically altered to look like the King for purposes of his safety. They disappeared after the assassination attempt. Nice job, guys!

The world of Counterfeit Kings is a dark, dark place indeed. In fact, the most notable and appealing thing about the book was its wonderfully gritty feel – ships were run down, some had insect or water or heating problems… It’s like the pristine space opera of yesteryear has been covered up in used, sludgy oil. The filth was, well, refreshing.

The characters have a lot of background information that also lends to the grittiness. The King’s rise to power is based on his proprietary knowledge of how to produce energy caskets from the volcanic moon of Io. His lecherous ways have littered the system with illegitimate children who desperately seek validity (and a little something to ease the pain like, say, the throne!) That’s hardly a regal résumé for a king!

Horrocks and his wife, Sari, were looking to get away from the dangers of being the King’s bodyguard, so they bought an energy mine from him. Unfortunately the King’s asking price was something very near an arm and a leg. Sari herself has a sordid background fraught with parental abuse and prostitution, a profession in which she gained much business thanks to the now-embarrassing, intricate tattoos that cover her body.

Guilfoyle is the epitome of desperation, a theme that is shared by just about all the characters in this book. Making ends meet by extorting money from grieving families, he jumps at the chance to make some “honest” cash by finding the King and selling his Ringers to the Bastards. His kid sister, Kitsis, is another loser, sponging off her brother and complaining the whole way, mostly about their ship’s unsanitary conditions.

But wait! There’s more! Queen Porphyria has a somewhat sordid past, mostly concerning her behavior with the Ringers and her doctor. The Ringers are experiencing serious identity issues in the wake of the assassination attempt. Rouen is just dastardly given half the chance, a pair of rusty pliers and a perfectly healthy set of teeth. [More shivers]

All of these characterizations are fleshed out in great detail and, like I said, lend much to the overall abrasive feel of the book. They aren’t really likable characters but that’s OK. The benefit here is in what they lend to the story’s mood.

My feeling on the writing, with respect to style and pacing, though, was one of ambivalence. While the starkness of the verbiage lent to the grittiness of the story (good) it sometimes made for a slow read (not so good). And while the story moved along quickly (good), having Horrocks’ ship hobbled via loss of its Spot Drive on page 8 made it seem like they were getting nowhere in their search for the King for the remaining 372 pages (not so good). It took about a third of the book before I really got into it by any appreciable amount.

When I did get into it, some things seriously tested my suspension of disbelief. For example, there were several scenes where Horrocks and others would cut through the hull of a ship with little or no repercussions. Spaceflight has a much stricter safety margin that that allows, especially in the world of rundown ships – see Allen Steele’s Orbital Decay for a more believable approach to the precariousness of space travel. Also, it seemed that the services of Horrocks and Guilfoyle were mostly unnecessary since the people that hired them (the Queen and the Bastards, respectively) kept popping in to say hi every couple of chapters. If you’re able to go where they do, why bother hiring them to do the job?

Another thing I noticed – the short, gratuitous and graphic sex scenes were a bit overdone. I’m not entirely sure what they added to the story at all. (Not that anyone really needs a reason to promote space porn. :))

In the end, I couldn’t get fully immersed in this story. Rather than putting myself in the action, wanting and waiting to see what came next, I was an outsider just watching the story move from point to point.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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