The Days of the King by Filip Florian
I’ll be honest—I picked this up because I loved the title and the cover art. The Days of the King, obviously, has enough echoes of The Lord of the Rings to make me feel all fuzzy and epic, the author’s name, Filip Florian, just feels whimsical, and the covert art is gorgeous. Guys, you know how I have this problem where my head gets turned by beautiful cover art and I’ll dive right in, only to learn the painful, painful truth? There appears to be no solution to my dilemma. Sigh.
In 1866, Joseph Strauss, a single dentist in Prussia, follows a dragoon captain to Romania, where the captain will rule. Once settled there, Strauss, in the company of his beloved tomcat Siegfried, opens up a practice and occasionally attends to the new Prince and, on one occasion, arranges a liaison for him with a blind prostitute. The two grow apart, but Strauss falls in love with a local nanny and begins a family—but the fruits of the prince’s arrangements come back to haunt him.
The Days of the King is an aggressively dense and inaccessible text. It was translated into English from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth, which might account for some of this. The last book that I had difficulty piecing together on a purely syntactical basis was Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. Sentences go on forever, leaving subjects and verbs waving at each other over immense distances. It’s a relatively slim book at 224 pages, which includes a brief discussion of the politics involved, but it feels longer. As an editor and as a writer, I am of the opinion that you should try and make your message clear—make the window between your story and your reader as clean and clear as humanly possible. (This doesn’t mean plain; you can make that window as beautiful as you want, as long as it’s clear. And now I will drop that metaphor.) At any given moment, I wasn’t certain what was going on; Florian’s tendency to circle back on his own timeline without letting you know and dropping actually interesting subplots at every given moment contribute to this. (One chapter ends with a few people—that might include Joseph?—setting something—that might be Bucharest?—on fire. This is never followed up on.) On top of that, there is no dialogue to be found anywhere in The Days of the King. The closest we get are the missives Siegfried, the cat, writes on the back of chairs. (I’ll get to that in a bit.) Whether it’s in pursuit of a high-minded style and stuffing this novel full of detail, Florian’s style utterly fails here, and this is a novel that’s mostly style. I think this book is going to be hit or miss based purely on that; I wonder if people who actually enjoy Faulkner (unlike myself) will take to it?
The story—which the official product description tries desperately to paint as a whimsical tale of Bucharest and love—feels limp, runny, and otherwise undercooked. Florian focuses on Joseph’s journey and the general situation in Bucharest for half of the novel, before remembering the story exists, which results in the main part of the story feeling compressed. The pacing is terrible, to be totally honest, compounded by the lack of dialogue. Without dialogue, scenes are fleeting at best—I think the longest scene is an extended rendering of the prince’s liaison with a blind prostitute. Florian flits through time as if half-distracted, which robs the story of a lot of its depth. The ending of the book—don’t hope for anything like a climax here—loses a lot of impact because we don’t know much about Elena, Joseph’s wife. I’m starting to wonder if most of this doesn’t just stem from an utter lack of dialogue, which keeps us from getting a good handle on anyone other than the prince, Joseph, and the cat.
The one charming thing in the novel is Siegfried—but again, it’s half-hearted and undeveloped, introduced so late into the novel that I seriously sat up and went, “What?” when it suddenly diverted itself into the cat’s missives. Siegfried, who finds love and family with a female cat, claws up the back of Joseph’s chairs, which are then translated into English from the feline. Some entries even include a twee feline date. They’re mostly amorous missives to Siegfried’s lady love or thankful notes to his master or his master’s best friend when he’s petsitting. When Elena is pregnant, Siegfried’s point of view becomes the best part of the book; when she grows big with child, he astonishingly tells his lady love that she must be pregnant with at least fifteen kittens! But the connection between Siegfried and Joseph’s son isn’t developed at all. How incredibly disappointing.
Bottom line: The Days of the King is a novel that’s mostly style—and if endless sentences, the lack of dialogue, and the general uncooked nature of it doesn’t appeal to you, you’re probably going to dislike it, just like me. A miss.
I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.
The Days of the King will be released tomorrow.