King Maker, the first of a planned trilogy by Maurice Broaddus, relocates the Arthurian legends to inner city Indianapolis, where the Arthur character, King James White, must claim his birthright amid gang fighting and drug wars. But the mythic elements are more of a hindrance than a selling point for the book, which mixes realism and magic, past and present, and the viewpoints of what often feels like too large a cast of characters to confusing effect.
Broaddus does an excellent job with his chosen setting. He brings to life the rundown Breton Court housing complex where King lives and where much of the story's action takes place; the long-running fight over drugs between Dred and Night and their respective crews; and the way the secondary characters' options for their futures gradually close off, leading them to work for one of the two crime lords.
Unfortunately, the scene-setting often crowds out the plot, which has little sense of direction for the first two-thirds of the book. Partisans of Dred and Night encounter each other, fight, threaten each other, do drugs and sometimes commit violence against random bystanders for the book's first two hundred pages or so, with the majority of the characters not appearing to work toward any particular goals. The action doesn't fall into an obvious Arthurian template until the last hundred pages, when King starts to gather his band—Lott, the mage Merle, Lady G, and an outreach worker named Wayne—to fight a still-amorphous enemy. Such back-loading makes most of King Maker feel like a very long prologue to some other story (or perhaps to the rest of the trilogy), and the lack of momentum leaves the reader very little incentive to keep turning pages.
Nor does the mash-up of realism and magic lend much sense of logic to the plot. Broaddus nails the grit, violence, and language of the story, which starts off in a firmly realistic landscape. But as the book progresses, hints of magic appear irregularly. With the exception of Merle, who's identified early on as a mage, it sometimes takes a while to figure out whether a particular character has magical abilities or not, and whether the "magic" of the streets the characters sometimes refer to is literal or metaphorical. Broaddus doesn't establish any principles for the use of magic within the universe of the book, and the range of fantastical elements—trolls, fey, mystical rituals, tendrils of mist that flow around and into people—is so wide that it only adds to the arbitrary, meandering feel of the narrative.
Frequent shifts between not particularly distinctive viewpoints generate more confusion. Broaddus jumps between characters' heads within chapters and sometimes even within scenes, and the characters' voices aren't particularly distinctive, so that I sometimes had to reread sections to figure out whose head I was in. (Switches between past and present in some scenes jumbled things further.) Broaddus spends some time in even the most minor characters' minds, and while their individual stories can be quite moving, when every character gets a turn as narrator, it quickly becomes difficult to tell which characters are the most important ones.
There are some aspects of characterization Broaddus handles well. King and Merle, the two characters with the strongest senses of humor and perspective, demonstrate those traits with a few enjoyably nerdy references, to Star Wars and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are also a few memorable moments of description, as when Broaddus notes that one character, Marshall, had "a set of chops which looked like he glued two hedgehogs to either side of his face" (p. 158). Broaddus also neatly differentiates Dred and Night, explaining Dred's transformation into a drug-selling folk hero through community service and Night's failure to achieve the same status.
But even with the bright spots of a rich setting and occasional humor, King Maker doesn't quite hang together as a novel. Though it's only the first book in a planned trilogy, it reads the way middle volumes of trilogies sometimes do: perhaps it provides background information that will make the sequel clearer, but the story doesn't stand on its own. Most of all, I came away from the book feeling that Broaddus had not done some of the author's most important work: making the choices about scenes, character, point of view, and plot that end up guiding the reader through the story the author wants him or her to be reading.
Sara Polsky has written for The Forward, The Hartford Courant, The Writer, and other publications. Her fiction has appeared in Fictitious Force and Behind the Wainscot.