Goodreads: Falling Kingdoms
Series: Falling Kingdoms #1
Published: December 11, 2012
In a land where magic has been forgotten but peace has reigned for centuries, a deadly unrest is simmering. Three kingdoms grapple for power—brutally transforming their subjects’ lives in the process. Amidst betrayals, bargains, and battles, four young people find their fates forever intertwined:
Cleo: A princess raised in luxury must embark on a rough and treacherous journey into enemy territory in search of a magic long thought extinct.
Jonas: Enraged at injustice, a rebel lashes out against the forces of oppression that have kept his country impoverished—and finds himself the leader of a people’s revolution centuries in the making.
Lucia: A girl adopted at birth into a royal family discovers the truth about her past—and the supernatural legacy she is destined to wield.
Magnus: Bred for aggression and trained to conquer, a firstborn son begins to realize that the heart can be more lethal than the sword. . . .
The only outcome that’s certain is that kingdoms will fall. Who will emerge triumphant when all they know has collapsed?
High fantasy with scope, vision, and complexity is a rare find in young adult literature. It is almost as if, as soon as a book gets particularly ambitious, it is bumped up to adult status. Falling Kingdoms seeks to remedy this deficit. It is being marketed as “Game of Thrones for teens” and clearly models itself after George R. R. Martin’s series with its switching among points of views, its interest in political intrigue, and its edginess. However, Falling Kingdoms almost follows too much of a pattern. I found the story entertaining as I was reading, but realized as soon as I finished that it is pretty standard high fantasy, without any particular originality or heart to recommend it over any other book.
The entire plot is set rolling by a random, almost insignificant event: the death of a wine merchant’s son in Paelsia. This is one of the cleverer aspects of the book, the demonstration of how far-reaching the consequences of a single action can be, especially when the right conditions align. From this point, the plot strives for more complexity, branching off to follow four or five main characters whose paths will eventually intertwine.
However, the book never seems to be as convoluted as it clearly intends. It aims for scope, but the miniscule land area covered (traveling from one country to another seems to be an afternoon’s jaunt) and the frequency of interaction among even rival characters makes everything seem compact. There also is really only one plot: war. Each main character has a little subplot to deal with individually, but these subplots mainly serve as tools for the characters’ personal development and do not add to the overall structure of the book.
And the characters do need, in my opinion, some personal development. Rhodes gives readers a diverse cast, including a spunky princess, a cold-hearted prince, a blossoming sorceress, and a vengeful brother. Unfortunately, I just did not like any of them. Only a couple characters are actually disagreeable, but just about all are, well, not very bright. Even supposed “experts” in their fields are unimpressive. People die left and right in this book (I fear some of the deaths were primarily for shock value), but several of the characters could have easily prevented their deaths if they had any intelligence.
Beyond the numerous, numerous deaths, Falling Kingdoms strives to build an dark, edgy high fantasy world in the vein of George R. R. Martin by providing some staples like mistresses and bastards and by broaching “taboo” topics like pre-marital sex and incest. Nonetheless, I was not scandalized. In part this is because Rhodes softens the edges either by not speaking directly about events (i.e mentioning sex occurred but not describing it) or by providing mitigating circumstances. I do not expect anything else from a young adult book since I assume we want to keep this to something that would make a PG-13 movie, not an R one. However, things just feel watered down.
Falling Kingdoms falls squarely within my category of a “solid” book. I found it entertaining as I was reading, and it seems to have all the right elements in place to make a good book: an interesting plot, decent prose, a vision. In the end, however, it is underwhelming. It reads as if Rhodes took a base model for a high fantasy book, and then simplified it a bit to make it “appropriate” for a teenage audience. I enjoyed it, but if I were recommending YA high fantasy to someone, I would choose Graceling instead because it brings a unique voice to the table. If I were recommending high fantasy in general, I would probably choose an adult book, because I believe teens are capable of handling a bit more complexity than Falling Kingdoms entrusts them with. I think Falling Kingdoms has an audience, and that many readers will like it, but people who are serious about their fantasy will leave wishing it had given something more.