After a lifetime of dominating the battlefield, striking fear into the hearts of his enemies and companions alike, Gaius Balderus has relinquished his title and fame for a simple life in the country—back to where his hometown once stood decades before. But when he discovers a neighboring Kobold settlement, rescuing the strongest of their warriors, he quickly decides to protect the canine-looking fairies from impending threats!
Kobold King vol 1 is one of the first new titles from J-Novel Club’s Legend imprint; a label dedicated to Kodansha titles with darker themes and more mature content. The series is written by Syousa and features cover art by sime. The English ebook was released January 2020, and was translated by Fatuma Muhamed.
After serving the previous king and bringing glory to the kingdom during the Five Year War, serving the crown princess as both guard and husband, and leading the valiant Knights of the Chain for decades, Gaius Balderus has chosen a more peaceful life for himself. Sick of the constant politics of the kingdom, and at odds with the current ruler, the hulking warrior has rescinded his hard-fought glory in hope to return to his humble roots. The man is both feared and respected across the land—his huge stature, enormous strength and horrific cursed facial scar all painting a fearsome picture, only enhanced by his many nicknames: “ally-killer”, “slayer of fifty” and more. His scary looks (due in part to being part troll) and rumored reputation (thanks to the twisting of legends) hide his true self—a kind and earnest man, with a heart of gold and simple dreams.
After returning to the ruins of his hometown, Gaius runs into the Greadwood, the land’s fearsome forest full of monsters, to rescue a screaming child from attack. What he finds is a Bugbear and a talking dog. The ferocious monster is no match for our hero, and once killed the dog introduces herself as White Fog—a Kobold warrior, member of the canine-looking fairy clan of which humans have only heard rumors. She brings him back to the Kobold settlement a little further down the riverbank, and the gruff-looking man soon becomes besotted with the fluffy adorableness of the townspeople. All is not well, however, as Gaius learns about how humans had attacked the Kobold’s previous town—looting the valuables and slaughtering indiscriminately. Caring and protective as he is, the man decides to help keep them all safe.
This isn’t just Gaius’s story though, as we also meet a variety of interesting characters too. There’s half-elf Sashalia, who defects from her position to follow Gaius (and her heart); Dwaemon, a cocky (in more ways than one) teenage dwarf who is adventuring to make a name for himself; and Darke, a sultry and powerful young woman who toys with the idea of becoming Gaius’s adoptive daughter. The three join the older man for their various reasons, and with the Kobolds, work together to save the furred residents of the town from more human attacks.
Kobold King and its characters leave me very mixed, and for much of the middle chapters I found myself questioning how the book had so drastically betrayed my expectations. Thankfully, by the end the gravity of the situation and the character writing managed to pull the story back into ‘enjoyable’ for me, but there were still problems I’m not sure it will ever fully shake. One of my favorite aspects of the early chapters was the relationship and interaction between Gaius and Fog, which we unfortunately lose midway through. The two have a very likeable and understandable friendship; she’s his only ally early on, and together they work to protect the Kobolds as best they can.
On the other hand, the rest of the non-Kobold cast have very distinct personalities which although give this story added dimension, also make them hard to like at points. Sashalia, despite being in her twenties, looks (and sometimes acts) like a child because of her elven heritage. Her romantic feelings for a man several decades her senior is fine in-and-of-itself, but petty jealousy is her defining character trait for most of the book; compounded by her tsundere “I don’t love him” denials and the weird emphasis on her body being pre-pubescent, it leaves a weird vibe to the whole thing. Darke might be even worse, continually manipulating Gaius with the hope she’ll let him adopt her, whilst knowing she never will. Her main goal is to steal his virtue—yes, in the carnal way—in order to repay him for saving her as a child. She’s recognized as having fallen into madness by the book, but again, it just leaves a weird vibe. I also don’t think these two ladies ever have a conversation (or a thought) that isn’t about Gaius; Syousa certainly isn’t passing any type of Bechdel Test here. Dwaemon at least is to the point and understandable—his entire motivation is the possibility of bedding beautiful women across the land—but dedicates himself on becoming stronger, a true storied hero, after suffering multiple defeats. His excited perversion is almost (almost) quaint.
Although the plot seemed to treat everything seriously, I was never quite sure if the constant discussion of bodily waste was meant to be a joke or not. I can handle a poop joke or two, don’t get me wrong, but I almost had to start a counter with how often characters voiced their need to got to the bathroom, kids played with monster droppings, etc. I feel crazy even mentioning it, but it was so prolific I can’t not. I also had to take a moment to process what I was reading when it was flippantly revealed our hero has a self-inflicted castration curse on him, but at least that has a semi-logical in-story explanation. It’s an odd unevenness when paired with the otherwise heavy violence, or the heartwarming interactions between Giaus and the Kobolds.
The villains of the piece are fairly rote and expected for this sort of plot and setting, but they do give the finale impact. I mentioned earlier that I was drawn back into the story by the end, and it really was because of how heavy and lasting the consequences were throughout. There’s a distinct lack of plot armor around as well, which worked well in getting the reader invested. It gave stakes to the fighting; true moments of visceral pain showing that ‘yes, the threat is real’. This book definitely feels different to many of J-Novel’s previous releases, and I think it’s a good indication for the Legend imprint going forward.
Although I didn’t love everything about this book, I do find Gaius very likeable, if somewhat naive for his age. And after the final fight of this book, there’s some interesting potential here with the other characters too. In some ways this book reminds me a lot of Little Princess in Fairy Forest, and I’d recommend that if you enjoyed this one—don’t judge a book by its cover (or title). All in all, I wouldn’t say this is a perfect book, but it’s definitely got more teeth than your average fantasy light novel. If you like the (non-isekai) fantasy setting, enjoy consequences to your fights and don’t mind an uneven middle chunk, give Kobold King vol 1 a try!
Gee’s Rating: Maybe recommended