I sat on this book for a while as, although the pace picks up towards the middle and the characterization of the hero deepens, the opening is slow, and the female characters are a little problematically portrayed (more on that later).
Realm of Kings follows DT who discovers he and his friends have superpowers and are called to save the Realm of Kings.
The writing style shows promise. I know some reviewers have mentioned that there’s too much dialogue and not enough description, but I enjoyed the dialogue. It felt natural and moved the plot forwards. I thought DT was a complex and interesting character with some challenging flaws.
However, some of the female characters seem to be stereotypically sexual in their demeanor, particularly in the opening. I would have liked a little more variation with their personalities.
Overall, I would recommend Realm of Kings to those who enjoy complex worldbuilding and layered protagonists.
Nikky Lee is a multi award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy. She’s twice been placed in the Aurealis Awards for Best Young Adult Short Story and Best Science Fiction Novella. She’s been published in multiple presses and magazines, including Deadset Press and Breach Magazine.
Lee’s debut novel, The Rarkyn’s Familiar, will be released in April. I was lucky enough to read an ARC copy and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Read my review here.
Most of your works are rooted heavily in science fiction and fantasy, what is it about this genre that sparks your interest? Was it a conscious decision to stick primarily to one genre?
I’ve always been drawn to the unreal. I think it comes from my inner child who’s always wished magic was real. There’s a sense of wonder and wanderlust wrapped up in it too, I love exploring strange lands and different cultures—real or in my head. And intellectually, I enjoy playing around with ‘what if’ scenarios and imagining how worlds, technology, social structures and culture would develop if they have (or don’t have) certain magic or technology.
I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to write primarily in the spec fic genre. It’s my favourite genre to read and I never imagined myself writing creatively in any other genre.
It’s no secret that you are a prolific short story writer, snapping up many awards and appearing in many publications, do you have any tips for writers who are looking to submit work to magazines, anthologies or short story competitions?
For the longest time I didn’t think of myself as a short story writer, my ideas were always these big, sprawling epics. Then I discovered that writing to a specific theme—be it a submission call out or even just a prompt—helped me narrow down my options and come up with a “small(er)” idea. The more short stories I wrote, the more I realised that limiting myself in this way actually makes me more creative.
It’s been said that learning to write a good short story can help tighten your prose and sharpen your plot in novel writing. How has your experience in short story writing helped you with writing your debut novel?
Not so much with my debut—I’d finished writing The Rarkyn’s Familiar before I fell in love with short stories. But writing short stories did make a massive difference when I was writing the second book in the series. I could rave for paragraphs about how good they were for experimenting with voice, style, tense—even just to practise elements that I knew I was weaker on or wanted to improve on. For example, Dingo & Sister, which won two Aurealis Awards, began because I wanted to prove to myself I could write a story with deep characters. Short stories have also been excellent for teaching me word economy.
On the project front, they have also been a great palette cleanser between bigger projects. Because they’re short, you can write one and then move on to the next idea pretty quickly. Plus the writer’s high you get from completing a short story is just as good as finishing something longer.
I know that you’ve been careful with which publisher you’ve chosen to work with. Could you talk us through your decision process? What advice can you give to aspiring authors?
I knew that I wanted to try and get published in the US or the UK since the markets there are so much bigger than little Aotearoa! I’d been querying The Rarkyn’s Familiar for about a year and a half, and had some nibbles of interest but they eventuated to nothing. At the same time, I was learning a lot about self-publishing and getting quite tempted there after seeing several Kiwi indie fantasy authors do exceptionally well. There was also the potential to earn a good return off a series, which is what The Rarkyn’s Familiar would be. However, the initial outlay to get even the first book professionally edited, formatted and cover designed was very off-putting.
Then I participated in #PitDark on Twitter and got an invitation from Parliament House Press to submit to them. I went to their website, checked out their books on Goodreads and Amazon and liked what I saw. The covers were fantastic and the quality of the interior samples was high, so I submitted. When the offer came through, I hired an agent from Australia to vet the contract and make sure there were no red flags that I hadn’t picked up. I also contacted a few of Parliament House’s authors to ask how their experience with the publisher had been. They all came back with glowing reviews—with the usual caveats of choosing to go with a smaller publisher: I’d be expected to do some marketing and self-promotion myself and not to expect bestseller sales. I was okay with that. I view publishing as a long game, it takes most authors several books to start earning a decent income. So I don’t expect to quit my day job anytime soon!
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned how you’ve drawn on your own experience with anxiety in The Rarkyn’s Familiar. From my experience reading your book, you dig quite deep into this topic and I can imagine it might have been difficult to write. What did your self-care routine look like when writing this book?
I was very fortunate to write the majority of The Rarkyn’s Familiar when I was in a good place mentally. I hadn’t had an anxiety flare up for a couple of years and was fairly confident I had it under control (all that changed when Covid arrived!). When I was searching for a way to deepen Lyss’s internal struggles, I realised my journey of understanding and accepting my anxiety was very similar to Lyss’s journey of discovering and accepting her magic: at first she doesn’t understand what is happening to her, then she initially tries to suppress it and fight it off, until she finally realises that accepting it lessens its power over her.
In terms of self-care, exercise is one of the best things for me. When I’m starting to feel stressed or anxious, it’s a sign I need to get up and move, even if it’s just a walk around the block. It does wonders for my sleep too, which then sets me up for the next day. Routine also helps (hence why Covid threw a spanner in the works). For managing a flare-up, I find square breathing works well along with making a conscious effort to set aside time for relaxation—be it some yoga, a hot bath and a book, or a short guided meditation. Lastly, the biggest leap forward in my self-care was the decision to go to the doctor and get professional advice—that has made a world of difference.
There are no real heroes or villains in The Rarkyn’s Familiar, which is one of my favourite aspects of your debut novel. To write such morally complex characters, what were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
I’m of the belief that villains aren’t born, they’re made. When I started writing The Rarkyn’s Familiar, I wanted to do more than the standard good versus evil setup. The antagonist’s motivation needed to be more than “because they’re evil”. I wanted to show characters who are the product of their society and their experiences within it; characters who think they are the heroes of their story, even when from another point of view, their behaviour is heinous.
Borderlanders is about three friends who are dealing with everyday life issues, but against a backdrop of magical realism. Melissa, the main protagonist, suffers from chronic pain. Bettina is dealing with a family secret and struggling to come to terms with her psychic dreams. Zelda is writing a book while going through a difficult divorce.
I enjoyed how the writer leaves Bettina’s dreams to the reader to decide whether there’s a supernatural element to them.
I also appreciated the way Melissa’s chronic pain was handled. It’s rare you come across a book that addresses the toll physical illness has on a person’s mental health. I particularly loved this passage,
“She won’t give me tablets for depression because she says it’ll get better as I get better. Then, next visit, she admits I may not get better for years. Or ever. Not until we know more about things. And she sends me for tests and forgets the depression.”
The author doesn’t shy away from the real struggles the chronically ill face when trying to seek recognition and validation for their pain. It’s clear a lot of research has gone into writing this book.
Some other quotes that beautifully illustrate the chronically ill experience are:
“I’m doing this because I’m wonderful and you’re an invalid. You shouldn’t really exist but I’m making it possible because look, I’m washing your dishes while I tell you how to live.”
“I need to pretend to have a different disability in order not to be yelled at.”
“What I’m not so impressed about was the way he shouldered in front of me for everything. He was so sick. And the family treated him as special. And I sat there at dinner thinking, “Maybe I’m not as sick as he is. Maybe I’m kidding myself.””
One aspect I found jarring at times was that the dialogue felt wooden. Everyone sounded the same. Although the characters are well drawn and I didn’t feel that the dialogue detracted too much from the storytelling.
Overall, if you’re looking for a book that accurately portrays chronic illness, I strongly recommend Borderlanders.
As a fan of fairytales, I was excited to pick up J.C Brennan’s The Enchanted, which tells the story of Rebecca Gentry who, not only discovers her late Grandmother’s bedtime stories are real, but also that she is of royal ancestry and comes from a long line of witches.
At first, I found the book difficult to read as some of the descriptions, particularly regarding the grandmother, dragged on. There were also moments where the writing shifted tenses. However, as the book progressed, the prose improved, and the pace quickened.
The protagonist Rebecca is very fitting for the fairytale genre, particularly regarding how she is “the chosen one.” While some reviewers weren’t fond of the cliché characterisation, I thought it worked in this book because of the presence of other classic fairytale tropes, such as the difficult stepmother, the evil witch, Rebecca gaining special powers on her 16th birthday, and the inclusion of other fantastical creatures such as vampires and fairies.
Overall, this book is perfect for traditional fairytale lovers.