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Kings or Pawns by J. J. Sherwood

Kings or Pawns (Steps of Power, #1; The Kings, #1) - J. Sherwood Weber

Set in a Tolkienesque fantasy world of elves, humans, and centaurs, some strive to do what is right while others seek to take what they can with might. Young King Hairem, whose father was recently slain and much of the Old Blood fled from the city of Elvorium, starts off ruling with a gentle hand, trying his abilities to subtly manipulate the long corrupted politics back into some semblance of decency. Meanwhile, the warlord Saebellus threatens to take over Elvorium, the Council pushes for war with the Centaurs, and an assassin creeps through the city taking out politicians. Hairem definitely has his hands full.

I listened to the audiobook so please excuse any misspellings of names and places.

This book starts off rather slow, setting the political stage and letting the reader get to know the world and characters. At first, the book jumped pretty quickly from one character to another and this made it hard for me to get attached to the characters. But then things settled down with King Hairem and General Jikun as the main characters. They are opposites in most ways. One is young and untried and still idealistic; the other is a more worldly person, a bit jaded, and definitely not pious. I very much enjoyed how these two have to build mutual respect and trust.

The cast is littered with mostly male characters, being human, elven, and helven. Navon is Jikun’s right hand man, but he has a nasty little habit that is scorned by all and punishable by death even though it can save a life or two in the heat of battle. Sellemar comes into the story late but his presence really livens things up. Quite frankly, the story was pretty slow moving until Sellemar offered his assistance and knowledge of certain secrets. He’s a rather cranky bad ass. I like that I am still not sure of his motivations; he’s complicated.

Sadly, there are very few female characters in this book and mostly, they are underutilized. Ilsafel is the daughter of a powerful Elvorium politician and the love interest. Alvena is a mute lass that works in the castle and has a secret crush. Kivervy is a huntress from Jikun’s home town who we spend very little time with and who has to be saved while on a hunt. There’s probably a mother or sister tossed in here or there. All the plot decisions are made by male characters. While this holds true to traditional epic fantasy, it is the 21st century and I have come to adore a more gender balanced approach in fantasy literature.

The first half of the book was pretty slow going. The big baddies of the book were almost like ghostly boogiemen – talked about, feared, but rarely seen on stage. Eventually, we get to meet a few centaurs, but it’s brief. The feared mighty warlord Saebellus doesn’t make a presence until the last quarter of the book. I think this slim and trim approach to the adversaries made it hard for me to fear them and hence to fear for the safety of the characters.

On the plus side, the last sixth of the book has the ladies taking on larger roles, they have more lines, and take a few more actions. Sellemar has his role and that adds action and deeper questions. By the end, it’s clear there is much more to the plot and there have been deep-laid plans. Not everyone makes it out alive! If the first half of the book had been even half as good as the second half of the book, I would give this story a full five stars.

I received a copy of this audiobook at no cost via the book tour company iRead Books in exchange for an honest review.

Narration: Matthew Lloyd Davies did a good job. He had a variety of accents that helped keep the myriad of characters distinct.  I really liked the young teen girl voice he picked for the internal monologues of the mute Alvena. He did great as Jikun, especially when Jikun was rightly angry at something.