Review: The Vagabond King is a fantasy thriller inspired by Welsh mythology
The Vagabond King, young Threon of the Waterlands, is given stern guidance by the sky god Zenith at a crucial moment in his fortunes. Threon has been dispossessed in a cruel invasion by the army of Thelonia, the large offshore island nation ruled by Empress Keresan. She, her army and her court are made almost immortal and inhumanly strong by the mineral vish, mining which has reduced her own lands to dust and many surrounding peoples to slavery.
Keresan is consort to the god Deyar. The book unfolds as the battle heats up between Deyar and his brother, Zenith, between the earth and the air. Each has taken various humans as their tools, their free will compromised by divine coercion despite efforts at resistance. Zenith has chosen Threon and pushes him through numerous challenges to gain, at least for a while, the advantage over Deyar.
Those challenges are the pulse of the book, a thriller with swords, witches, shape-shifters and deadly soldiers. And along the way, lots to learn about divinity.
Author Jodie Bond said at a reading recently that she loves writing the excitement of chases and battles. Her debut novel is indeed action packed and she choreographs the fights and escapes with care. Threon is surrounded by a large cast, from Savanta the angel of death to Lleu the hulking half-breed soldier. Keresan too has myriad allies, not least Lleu’s father, commander Khan. They all have a role to play in the gods’ war. For those of us who love a series, the novel even ends with an open door, the beginning of the next adventure already emerging from the mist.
Bond is from Snowdonia and now lives in Cardiff, but resists any pigeonholing into ‘Welshness’. Nonethless, there are perhaps, three ways in which the novel makes us wonder what characterises such writing.
Most obviously soldier Lleu offers a hint of Cymraeg alongside the Celtic lilt of Ionia, another realm bordering the Waterlands. We can find plenty of other mythological clues from further afield in Bond’s nomenclature, from Azzania through Maradah to Zenith. The variety of names offers a sense of history, suggesting a bigger hinterland than the novel can cover.
No fantasy writer can avoid comparisons with Westeros and Middle Earth, both of which involve long quests into strange places. Bond compresses the time involved for Threon’s wanderings, suggesting that her theatre of war is relatively small and leaving us wondering what lies outside it. Yet that smallness encompasses great variety: seas and mountains, deserts and marshland. This is another hint of Bond’s Welsh origins: the possibility of mythic quests through complex landscapes without the need to spend months on the journey.
Perhaps most familiar of all, though, is the easy permeability of the divine and the human, the mortal and the immortal. Bond gives this a physical reality: ‘his transluscent fingers disappeared under her skin. Her insides froze, and she felt pressure on her organs as he twisted his fingers around them. The breath was squeezed from her lungs.’ This graphic image is our first introduction to a god: Zenith assaults engineer Savanta for her temerity. She has made a flying machine: he forces her from the sky and, in revenge, gives her wings. Revenge because it places her in his power, to be forced where he wishes her to go, and grounded when he is displeased.
The heroic quest, mortals touched by deities, the strange status of the demigods and larger-than-life heroes are familiar from many mythologies. Here we have the strong women too. Savanta herself, the Guardian-witch Azzania, Keresan herself and the queen Aya. These women, like the heroines of Celtic mythology are closely related to sovereignty, both of the land itself and of the people and individuals who live there.
In another profound interaction, Keresan and Deyar have been married for a thousand years, with myriad descendants – some deliberately interbred to strengthen their army. Her fate saps even Deyar’s strength. His battle with Zenith, fought in divine realms but with all too material consequences for humans, partly turns on his long love for her. He cannot be killed, but he can become tired of war.
This mediated relationship between the divine and the human is at the heart of those lessons Threon must learn about religion, or, more precisely, the nature of the gods in his world. Bond asks us to imagine powerful deities who, nonetheless, are not omnipotent. Gods can limit each other, through battle or persuasion. They are less powerful outside their own realm: for instance, there are earth-realms that Zenith, as god of the air, cannot enter. And some humans have learnt ways to resist their seductions and coercion. The caste of Guardians, a mysterious group of witches who give both battle and healing, have found a path that enables them to beat back the gods. It’s a teachable discipline, for those who want to learn, but makes familiar demands of abnegation and control.
In this world, then, it is not religion that requires practice and faith. Rather resistance to the divine, the exercise of free will, are the harder path. To act freely is hard work, Bond suggests. Surrender to the gods, to the caprice and power of fate, is all too easy. To take responsibility and be a leader takes time, self-knowledge and sacrifice. Those expert in resistance look like the devotees of our world: dressed alike, sober and chastened, committed to their practice. Unsurprisingly, the people around them, all too aware of the realities of divine intervention, view these Guardians with suspicion and not a little fear.
Bond has said that she started The Vagabond King to explore the impact of immortality, the temptations of longevity for a ruling caste. I would suggest the more interesting element of her richly imagined world is this inversion of the business of religion. For Threon and those around him, it takes faith to be free.
It will be interesting to see what happens to them, whether they keep that faith or fall to temptation. There’s two more books to come and I look forward to finding out.
‘The Vagabond King’ by Jodie Bond is published by Parthian and can be bought here.
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