The Demon King is the first book in the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima.  It is followed by The Exiled Queen, and the third book The Gray Wolf Throne was just released last month. The Crimson Crown, the fourth and final book in the series, is scheduled for release in fall 2012.

Han used to be a very successful leader of a street gang known as “Cuffs” for his silver armbands, which he cannot remove and has had ever since he can remember. Now he’s trying to make a more honest living performing tasks such as collecting plants to sell and running errands for others. It’s not enough to provide for himself, his mother, and his sister – and it’s not enough to escape his past, especially when a bunch of his old rivals from when he was a streetlord are brutally murdered. The Queen’s Guard knows all about Cuffs and his reputation and are all too eager to pin the crimes on Han.

However, Han is beginning to wonder if an amulet in his possession is cursed, especially after learning it used to belong to the Demon King of legend. He acquired it when his friend from the clan, Fire Dancer, and he confronted some wizards who were trespassing on clan land. When one of them threatened them with the amulet, Han ended up taking it from him so he wouldn’t use it against them later. Fire Dancer had advised him to leave the amulet behind, but Han couldn’t bear to lose such a powerful, valuable object. Ever since that day, his luck seems to have gotten worse and worse.

Meanwhile, Raisa, the heir to the queendom, is nearing her sixteenth birthday when she will be old enough to marry. Considering her mother is still fairly young and should have many years ahead of her to rule, Raisa doesn’t plan on getting married anytime soon. Yet her mother has other plans for her and Raisa is realizing more and more that her mother is not as she remembers her – which is bad news for the queendom.

While it is largely setting up the rest of the series, The Demon King still manages to be an absorbing book with engaging characters. It did have a slow start and it wasn’t until about 30% of the way through that it fully drew me in, but once I reached that point I couldn’t put it down. There was one afternoon I had been planning to just read a couple of chapters, but I reached that point and ended up spending the whole afternoon just reading this book. It’s not a complex book or one that’s terribly original, but it doesn’t matter since it’s a well told story. Cinda Williams Chima is one of those authors who can take familiar concepts, add a bit of polish with some unique details, and then create character perspectives that give it an added shine.

The Demon King does utilize a lot of common fantasy character tropes – the commoner who is special in some way, the brave and reckless princess, and the very unsympathetic villain. In spite of that, the two main characters are both very sympathetic and compelling. I particularly loved the contrast of their two viewpoints.

Han is so poor his family worries about their next meal, and he knows  the way of the streets. Though Han, we get to see the life of the common people and the clans. It was really easy to like Han, and I related to him immediately with his plight of reforming himself but being unable to escape his reputation and trying to provide for his mother and sister. He’s charismatic and a little bit roguish but not to the point where he’s despicable – he has a reason for anything he does and he never does anything so horrible that he’s unlikable. Han was easily my favorite of the characters, and he was also the one who had a more exciting plot.

Raisa, on the other hand, is the heir to the throne, and it’s from her perspective that we see court life and the wizards. It did take me longer to warm up to Raisa than it did Han, but eventually she won me over. In spite of being royalty, it soon becomes clear that Raisa is not without problems as well. Raisa was the one who underwent the most character development as she began to learn more about the parts of the queendom she’s been isolated from all her life – and begins to discover the way the world really works for the average person.  She yearns to be free and able to make her own choices instead of being constrained by living the life required of a future queen. These wishes gave her more dimension than the somewhat typical adventurous princess she began as, especially as she made an effort to become a better, more informed person.

Han and Raisa’s stories each show a different piece of the puzzle and overlap. Although they don’t spend much time together in this book, their meeting was very memorable, and I’m hoping they’ll spend much more time together in the next book!

Unfortunately, most of the secondary characters are more one dimensional, in particular a lot of the those present at the queen’s court (other than the Captain of the Queen’s Guard and his son who were great additions to the cast of characters). This may be part of the reason I had difficulty warming up to Raisa at first – Han got the more interesting characters to interact with since the people of the clans were better characters. Since Han and Raisa both were good characters, the lack of great secondary characters was not a big deal, though.

I loved the way the history of the world was revealed and how it affected the present. Due to one wizard’s power, there are rules in place about what wizards can do – they can’t marry the queen, they can only use magical items with limited power, and they are not supposed to set foot on the land belonging to the clans. As a result, some people also are prejudiced against wizards, especially those who do not see them all the time in the queen’s court. This all ties in with the story of the Demon King and the amulet Han acquires, and it ends with some revelations that should make the rest of the series interesting, even if some of them were predictable.

The Demon King seemed like an introduction to the world and characters that are important to the series, especially with most of the major events happening close to the end. Even so, it’s an immensely entertaining book on its own despite a slow start. Cinda Williams Chima has created an all-around gripping fantasy story with strong main protagonists and a well-realized world. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in future installments.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from a publicist.

Read Chapter One

Other Reviews:

Stop by tomorrow for a guest post by Cinda Williams Chima discussing thieves as heroes!