2021’s A Drowned Kingdom is the first volume of P. L. Stuart’s secondary-universe sword-and-sorcery Drowned Kingdom Saga
The kingdom of Atalantyx is the greatest nation in the world. If you doubt this, simply ask Atalantyx’s Second Prince Othrun. He belongs to the kingdom’s royal family so must be an unimpeachable source. An inflexible, devout follower of the One God, Othrun holds his convictions without any trace of doubt or reflection. Having been placed by birth near the top of the kingdom’s pecking order, Othrun is confident that the world is as it should be; reform or deviation is therefore unthinkable.
However, Othrun is not the heir to the throne. His older half-brother Erthal is. Erthal is quite different from his brother.
Their father King Atalan IX has a plan: dupe one of the many pagan rulers of the continent of Acremia into a temporary alliance, use said ruler’s forces and Atalantyx’s superior technology to conquer some other polity, then betray their ally, subjugate them, and forcibly convert the surviving pagans to the true faith just as the One True God clearly desires the kingdom to do. Having found his dupe in the person of King Mag of Norsoon, and being too old to travel, Atalan IX dispatches Erthal and Othrun to secure a treaty.
To the envoys’ astonishment, among the gifts offered by Mags to his would-be allies is his exquisitely beautiful daughter Dira. Heretofore disinterested in love, Erthal is smitten. Despite the many compelling reasons why he should not marry Dira, Erthal nevertheless does just that. When the brothers return to Atalantyx, Dira accompanies them.
Dira is merely the camel’s nose in the tent. She convinces Erthal to permit Norsoonian druids to enter Atalantyx. It becomes clear that reasons beyond mere religious prejudice make this an unwise move. Wherever the druids visit, people vanish. No doubt the druids are sacrificing victims!
Erthal and Atalan IX being deaf to criticism, Othrun finds himself in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to visibly oppose his older brother and father. Although he knows this can only result in his death, honour demands he speak out. Astonishingly, Erthal spares Othrun and his rebel allies. Rather than massacring them on the battlefield or having them executed, Erthal exiles Othrun, his aristocratic allies, and two thousand followers from Atalantyx, never to return.
Erthal need not fear that his rebellious younger brother will find a way to return from exile and take the throne for his own. Scarcely has the fleet set to sea than the great volcano that dominates the island kingdom erupts. Those on the island who survive the eruption drown when the island sinks into the sea. The only survivors are the exiles in Othrun’s fleet.
Othrun has no doubt what he must now do: find a dupe (this time from the Eltnish barbarians) to provide him with land in exchange for an oath of fealty from Othrun, use the alliance to establish a power base, betray his ally1, and reestablish a successor state to the drowned kingdom. It is what the One God would want him to do!
However, there will be some impediments, from beautiful sorceresses to the shocking tendency of the Eltnish barbarians to betray alliances whenever personal or national advantage demands it. But then, what can one expect from pagans?
Cliff-hanger warning: the book ends on one.
A Drowned Kingdom was self-published, which shows. There are more pages than story. It could have used an editor. (In all fairness, I should note that the popularity of series like Malazan shows that some fans like verbosity.) Also, from time to time the formal prose suddenly veers into modern slang, a move that never failed to jerk me out of the story. Some of the action scenes ignore anything like plausible physics.
Readers might notice that Atalantyx has exactly one strategy: find a patsy, use them to conquer their neighbors, then betray and subjugate the ally once they are no longer useful. Historically, this has worked very well for them. By the time the novel is set, however, they’ve done it enough times that it’s getting quite difficult to find new victims. In fact, a good part of the plot (once the exiles land in the Eltnish regions) is driven by the fact many of the local kings expect the Atalanteans to do exactly what Othrun plans to do. That is what Atalanteans have done every previous time they’ve had the opportunity.
Othrun, who relates the entire tale, is a hypocritical, ignorant, misogynistic religious fanatic. He would, had he the authority, rewrite official history to reflect what it should have been rather than what it was2. But he is sufficiently unreflective to record events without noticing that the facts he records do not support his interpretation of the facts.
Spending time with such a character might seem an unpleasant prospect. It’s not all that bad, as Othrun turns out to be capable of learning from experience (even though he would much prefer not to). He is doomed to personal growth, although not soon enough to keep him from having many otherwise avoidable3 adventures.
A Drowned Kingdom is too long, rough in spots, and as one would expect from a sword-and-sorcery book, rather violent. Still, I was amused from time to time.
1: Oaths sworn to pagans don’t count as real oaths. However, oaths sworn by pagans to true believers do.
2: The history he would like corrected: the early Kings of Atalantyx were polytheists.
3: When Othrun is pondering where to take the exile fleet, he is offered refuge in Anibia, which he immediately rejects because he is sure the Anib are all black cannibals. It’s only when it’s far too late to matter that he discovers Anibia is a civilized land of considerable antiquity. Probably he and his could have lived quite comfortably there. Oops.