Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
The Secrets of the Kings is a solid and intriguing first novel by Nora Delzelle. The book follows the main protagonist, Alex, along with her entourage—Lynn, Emily, and Gabriel—as they seek to uncover the mystery behind a mystical, magical mask with ties to Egyptian mythology.
Can Alex Kincaid overcome the threat of her homicidal ex-blind-date, Chance? Can she summon the strength and the courage to overcome an ancient evil that's over 5,000 years old? What new powers might she unlock and discover with the help of Osiris' mask?
This really is a solid novel. The writing is solid. The formatting is solid. The cover is absolutely amazing. The characters do their jobs for the most part. The plot is ok, and some of the wrinkles are interesting. In fact, the plot is downright captivating at times, but it's intermittent. It is very clear that this is the author's first rodeo, and that's ok. They did a superb job all things considering.
Beside from the writing and the formatting, the mythological inspiration behind the story is very compelling. The core conflict between Osiris and Set is fascinating. Every portrayal of that rivalry is entertaining in some way, mirroring Loki & Thor or Zeus & Hades.
The author clearly had a lot of ideas: some good, some iffy, and some simply generic. Maybe that's what brings this book down a little bit: the genericness. When it comes down to it, this is a book about a girl who is much more special than she realizes, who happens to own a McGuffin (the mask), who happens to be in love with a nigh-perfect male friend (Gabriel), who happens to need to save that male friend from an ancient evil in a trial by combat. And there's a pseudo love triangle with the clearly-not-right-for-her-because-he's-homicidal Chance that quickly gets shattered, returning to the status quo of a clear-cut two-way. Girl likes boy. Boy likes girl. They denied it all their lives, but they're clearly meant to be together. It's really nothing that new. We know how that story plays out.
You almost get the feeling like this whole book was likely written as some sort of love letter to a crush the author has, a crush whose name is probably Gabriel. That may not be the case, but that's how it comes across.
Gabriel is just such a boy scout. He's always there for Alex and has been there for her through thick and thin, denying his feelings for her until the plot called for it because the MC needed someone to rage over. Is there at least one instance when he isn't a perfect boy scout? Well, yes, actually. It's when he goes too hard on Alex while sparring with her, but that's clearly because he cares about Alex and wants her to be able to defend herself from Chance and Set. It's the equivalent of a coach or teammate pushing an athlete to do better and challenge themselves. Does it give Gabriel an edginess? Kinda, but not really. But Gabriel will likely be the favorite character for most readers. He needs to be. In a lot of ways, he is a catalyst for a lot of the things that happen and the decisions that are made, making him quite an effective supporting character.
Lynn and Emily, on the other hand, are not nearly as compelling. They aren't much different from Marge Simpson's sisters. They're funny and amusing sometimes, but you really don't like or get behind them as much as you do Gabriel and Alex. They just are--they're friends who are along for the ride. They're third and fourth wheels. But, hey, a car needs four wheels to drive, right? That's a fair argument.
Yes, you do get some tragic backstory for Lynn very late in the book that's supposed to help you to understand Alex's eventual decision. But, first of all, we already knew that Alex was going to make that decision because it was the only one she could've logically made. Second of all, why are we given a character's back story so late? When you do that, the only way the reader can fully appreciate the character is either in hindsight or via a rereading of the book, and even then the reveal doesn't hit the way the author probably intended due to the genericness of the tragic back story. It is exactly what you think it is. That's not really a spoiler. You can easily guess what it is.
Now we come to the big hitters of the story: Alex and Set. This, unlike the relatively predictable love story, is quite interesting. Alex is an inheritor of the mask of Osiris, an enchanted artifact that works similar to the Dark One's Dagger in Once Upon a Time. When you have it, you wield the power, but you also bear its curse. Osiris, in this telling of the myth, championed law and order while Set championed freedom and choice. Interesting, we know. It almost makes it sound like Set is a very sympathetic and understandable villain, if they're a villain at all. The thing is that Set took things too far and became the harbinger of chaos and anarchy, because of course he did. He's pretty much the devil of Egyptian mythology.
The one who wears the mask of Set, similar to the one who wears the mask of Osiris, is destined to be in conflict with and try to kill the other. The masks are able to grant the users extraordinary powers including super strength, superhuman reflexes, a built-in aim-bot (essentially), mad martial arts skills, and even flight. But they're a double-edged sword. Not only do you inherit some of the powers and personalities of Set or Osiris—which is troubling enough—you also inherit the personalities of all the mask's bearers including homicidal, violent, and aggressive ones. They gradually overwrite your own personality.
The masks can even make you manipulative and grant you the powers of suggestion: a power to make others do things they wouldn't otherwise do, as we see with Chance. And, by the way, why is every secondary villain in every fantasy book named Chance? Are the Chances of the world inherently destined to be mid-tier baddies? Just a thought. This inheriting of personalities is actually why we compared it to the Dark One's Dagger, because it too carried the same curse: the darkness of all the ones who bore or wielded it before.
The slight problem with that is, we don't think Alex struggles with the mask enough. Her powers and abilities don't seem as earned as they should be. She's training, yes, but it's the powers of the mask that are giving her the ability to do things, not Alex herself. In fact, Alex herself is kinda a softy. We hear she has some kind of martial arts training, but she has practically lost all memory of it. She says she's too tired or that she needs a break. It's not like heroes always have to be super-confident and not whiny, just look at Luke and Anakin Skywalker, Neo from The Matrix, or even Rocky. There were times when they were naive and/or complained. It just needs to be handled well, and there needs to be some sort of arc or development.
Alex's arc seems more about other people and the mask than it does herself. Does Alex change and become more courageous and determined? Yes. But are these changes due to her personal journey or because of some external influences like Lynn talking her up, or Gabriel being in danger, or the mask being special? The latter seems to be the case.
When they finally get to using weapons and go ax-throwing, it's treated as more of a group of friends hanging out and having fun than it is actually training. It's like they're bowling or going to a movie together. There really seems to be a lack of urgency, like Alex would rather screw around and play with her powers than actually train for this life-or-death ordeal. It shouldn't be that way.
And let's just quickly mention that almost every scene that Chance is in is incredibly uncomfortable. Make of that what you will, but that really might warrant a trigger warning. It's like jumping from one unspeakable assault to the next. And it's really unnecessary, unless the point was to show that the mask was corrupting like the One Ring or something. But if this were intended for young adults, this may not fit so well. No, the assaults aren't full-on sexual, but there are implications. To the author's defense, this kind of thing isn't unprecedented in young adult fiction. Peeta in The Hunger Games does attack Katniss in the later books because he has been brainwashed by the villains to do so. It is excusable. However, that was one time. For some reason, we need a repeat in this book.
Anyway, credit where credit is due: the cover is great, the writing is good, the formatting is good, and there are a few interesting characters and ideas in here. It's a valiant first attempt by a promising new author!
Check it out on Amazon!