The Story King (Sunlit Lands #3) – Matt Mikalatos

The Story King by Matt Mikalatos
Also by this author: The Crescent Stone, The Heartwood Crown
Series: The Sunlit Lands #3
Published by Wander on June 8, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Christian, Fantasy, Young Adult
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five-stars

In the third and final installment in the Sunlit Lands series, the magic of the Sunlit Lands has been reset, but that doesn't mean all is well. Unrest and discord are growing by the day, and Hanali is positioning himself as ruler of the Sunlit Lands. But, in order for Hanali to seize control, there must be a sacrifice, one that very few are willing to make. Jason, Shula, Baileya, and others must work together to save the lives of those Hanali would sacrifice for his own gain.

And so we come to the end of The Sunlit Lands. After two years, Matt Mikalatos is finally giving readers the long-awaited conclusion to The Sunlit Lands with The Story King. Where to even begin? First, if you haven’t read the first two books (The Crescent Stone & The Heartwood Crown), go and do that. There’s so much to absorb in The Story King, I can’t imagine trying to read it while also relying on only distant memories of the first two books. Second, prepare yourself for a complex and nuanced story. That’s been true for this series as a whole, but The Story King takes it to another level as Mikalatos explores the creation and foundation of the Sunlit Lands.

The Sunlit Lands is a well-crafted, fully-realized world so rich in lore and legend that even Tolkien would appreciate it. It’s almost too much at times. Not too much objectively, but too much for one book. Since the world is so unique and does not rely on standard fantasy tropes, Mikalatos has no great way of giving readers a succinct shorthand. On one hand, this leads to beautifully lyric descriptions; on the other, it’s just so much to take in all at once. I wonder if the story wouldn’t have been better told if expanded and allowed to breathe through two books. Now there are publishing reasons for why it isn’t, I’m sure, so I’ll always take too much over too little (especially when it’s Mikalatos dishing it out).

There are also some plotlines that are a little…complicated. I didn’t understand everything I read in the moment—such as when the fake Jasons kidnap Jason. And there are things I’m still not sure I totally understood in all its fullness—Darius’s journey to Malgwin and the Sea Beneath. And there are things that are still mystery and meant to be mystery—such as the origin of Cumberland’s master’s magic. (This last one could have been a prequel novel in and of itself.)

The first two books in The Sunlit Lands explored the concepts of privilege, inequality, social justice, and sacrifice. In The Crescent Stone, we learn that the Elenil obtain their power by taking from the Scim. When Madeline is healed of her lung disease, it is to the detriment of a Scim who takes that burden upon themselves. The Heartwood Crown is about undoing the generational effects of such systemic injustice and Madeline sacrifices her own life to reset the balance of power. The Story King moves one step further to consider what we are to do if the very system itself was created out of a pattern of injustice and inequality. It’s a dense, yet understandable movement from awareness to individual activism to true systemic deconstruction.

The Story King is one of those novels that you could read several times and still pick up new things from it. Mikalatos has layered his legends one over the other and ensured that each story within the story has its own purpose and isn’t simply there to serve the narrative. If you’re a fantasy buff, the best analogy that I have is that The Story King is to The Sunlit Lands what That Hideous Strength is to C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. (Except I had a much better time reading The Story King.) If you thought the first two books were deep and compelling, challenging and mysterious, just wait until the third.

In fact, I’m willing to extend the comparison: Matt Mikalatos is a C.S. Lewis of his generation. Consistently thoughtful, yet whimsical. Very serious, yet full of snark and sarcasm. An evident love of mythology, symbolism, and story. Lewis’s influence is seen several places throughout the series, perhaps even in the name The Sunlit Lands itself.

In this world, our preconceived biases often keep us from being able to see issues from a different perspective. By placing a near-analogue of those issues into a fantasy world—a world where we have no biases—Matt Mikalatos shows readers our world through the lens of that one, helping us see old issues with new eyes. The questions he asks and the answers he suggests are not easy (indeed they may mean our undoing), but they worth the conversation. Mikalatos uses story in the most profound of ways. Like Nathan of old, he tells us a parable, notes our outrage, then says to us quite simply “Thou art that man.” But he does so in a way so loving, so non-condemning, so simply, that you can’t help but ask him where to start. Because it’s one thing to deconstruct a fantasy world and quite another to do so to our reality.

The Story King is a worthy conclusion to The Sunlit Lands, though I desperately hope for more adventures to follow.

five-stars