Rating: 5 stars
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That which haunts us will always find a way out. The wound will not heal unless given witness. The shadow that follows us is the way in. –Rumi
Vin Vanbly stands in a cornfield in DeKalb, Illinios, watching Mai Kearns and getting ready for the start of Mai’s king weekend. Vin has been preparing for weeks, and now the moment is almost at hand. He can see that Mai is impatient waiting for Vin to appear. Mai knows this is his king weekend. He and Vin met online and have talked for months. Mai knows the story of the Lost and Found kings, he has chatted with others in the Vin Vanbly forum on AOL. So Mai has been eager for his chance to become a king, for his magical weekend like the others.
The past months have been a struggle for Mai and his parents, family farmers in the small town. It has been hard to make ends meet and now someone has bought out their farm mortgage, likely a big faceless corporation who will take over their farm as they have done to so many others. Time is running out for them, and without a miracle, the Kearns family will lose their farm, likely within the week.
Although he is devastated, part of Mai thinks he isn’t so sure he really wants to be a farmer. Living in this town as a Thai man adopted by a white family, being gay and out, it hasn’t been easy. High school was especially hard, and having his first love leave him even harder. But even though Mai doesn’t always recognize his love for farming, Vin can see it. He can tell how important it is to Mai, how much he loves farming and the land and the corn. How important his family is to him and how much he enjoys working with his father. Mai is telling himself farming isn’t for him to protect his heart. You can not lose a love if you never accept that you have it.
But Vin sees what Mai needs to regain that love and happiness in his life. And over the course of the weekend he helps Mai rediscover that love, to open his heart, and to reclaim the man he is meant to be. The two travel the streets of DeKalb, find magic on the farm, face down former high school adversaries, and spend endless hours among the never ending corn fields. And all the while Vin tells the stories of the kings, of the King of Curiosity and his best friend Jimbo, of how the Lost Kings come to be found again. Along the way Mai struggles; it isn’t easy becoming a king, especially when the path isn’t always clear. But by the end of the weekend, Mai, King of Curiosity, finally becomes found once again, and it is glorious.
Sigh. Once again Manning has blown me away here. As with the first book in the series, King Perry, I am overwhelmed and delighted and amazed. This book left me smiling, feeling exultant and thrilled. This book is just so magical, taking us on a journey right along with Mai. Each step is a piece of the puzzle, another element that seems perhaps meaningless on the surface, but as the book continues it coalesces into something much bigger and more powerful. It’s like when you work on a jigsaw puzzle and you spend hours studying the brown smudge or analyzing the light and dark blues, each piece just a blur. And then when it is done, you take a step back, and suddenly you can see the puzzle as a whole, and how all these little pieces work together to make the picture. And that is just what happens to us and to Mai throughout this book.
As a book King Mai had to walk an interesting line and I think Manning hits it just perfectly. One of the many wonders of King Perry is that we are following along with Perry as he experiences his king weekend. As readers we know nothing about what is to happen, where this is all going, the surprises Vin has in store, or the seemingly magical way it will all come together. We have the same sense of wonder as Perry as all is revealed. Now of course with King Mai we are more knowledgeable readers. We know about the kings. We aren’t as surprised when Vin has water hidden in just the right place, when something that happens seemingly in passing turns out to be important a day later. So Manning instead lets us peek behind the curtain a bit. We get into Vin’s head more as he works through the weekend. We see where he struggles as he tries to figure out the best move and we learn earlier about some of the details and how they have been pulled together. Mai also is a more knowledeable would-be king. Unlike Perry, he knows what this journey is about, just not how it will all be accomplished. And just like in King Perry, where as readers our understanding parallels Perry’s, here in King Mai, our knowledge mirrors Mai’s. We know just enough to see where things might go, but not enough to ruin the journey. Seriously you guys, the genius in the details here blows me away.
I will say I was a tiny bit worried about King Mai. King Perry was one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. Like life changing, you guys. So I was concerned that this one wouldn’t compare, wouldn’t be a worthy companion to that story. As I remembered Perry’s exultant moment on the mountain top, I wondered if Mai would ever find that. Would the pieces connect, would the seemingly random events turn into something more? I mean, we spend a lot of time talking about corn here. But of course I shouldn’t have worried. Once again, as readers we parallel Mai’s journey. As Mai is struggling, trying to see where things are all going, we too are wondering how it could all come together. And Manning doesn’t disappoint us. Mai has his moment, and it is as magical as you could ever want for him.
As I read this story, I couldn’t help but being amazed at the brilliance of Vin. Of how he can plant a seed at 7:00 on Friday night, and suddenly have it sprout at just the perfect time the next day. Of how he is always thinking 10 steps ahead, having thought through every detail and every possible contingency. And then I am further amazed as I recognize that this isn’t just a character. In order to write this Manning has had to be Vin to some degree, to think through this intricate puzzle to not only write a wonderful story, but to make all these little details work, to create this magic in his head in order to make it come out of Vin. The details and the depth of research and just the plain creativity from this author simply blows my mind.
Folks who read King Perry might notice that this book takes place in 1996, three years before that story. But even though this happens earlier, this story isn’t a prequel. I gave some thought to whether you could read these out of order, and in the end I decided I’d recommend no. From a plot perspective you could follow King Mai by itself, and even though there are some kernels dropped and connections made to King Perry, the story is clear without having read that. But as I said, when you read King Perry, you are learning as you go. And I think if you read King Mai first, some of that magic and wonder will be lost for the first book. And trust me, King Perry is amazing, far too good to do anything that will lessen your enjoyment or make it less likely you will read it.
Just a note, as with King Perry, this is not a traditional romance with a happily ever after for Mai and Vin. Yes, these men love one another, and there is clear sexual attraction, but they are not meant to be partners. This is their magical weekend together, but each man has something else in his future. I will reuse my Mary Poppins analogy from my King Perry review: Vin is here to help Mai find his inner king and get that love back in his life. And when his work is done, Vin is off to help someone else. It works here, trust me it does, even if you are an HEA fan. I firmly believe there is true love in store for both these men, just not with each other, and both are content with that.
So this one was simply wonderful. Manning crafts such a beautiful story, one that makes you feel full of love and wonder and inner strength. It is such an impressive story, full of a level detail that will leave you stunned, and a level of emotion that is incredibly powerful. Do yourself a favor and read these books. Trust me when I tell you they are magical.
Cover Review: Oh, I just love this cover. On first glance, it might not look like much. But as with this book, the magic is in the details. Here we see Mai in his exultant moment, just as he becomes a king, looking over the fields of his beloved corn. I love that we see the sparkling lights that he sees and his green King shirt. And I especially love how nicely it parallels the cover for King Perry, right down to the shirts and the magical kingly moments. Beautifully done.
P.S. If you are interested in more background on these stories, Manning will be here tomorrow to chat with us about what is next for Vin and to give us an idea of where the sereis is going from here. You can also check out the interview I did with Manning last year upon the release of King Perry. Although it is focused on that book, there is a lot of interesting stuff that also relates to this one. Manning has also released the first three chapters of the final book in the series, King Daniel, which takes place in present day (and no, books 3-5 have not be written yet). It is designed to give you a hint of things to come for the series and to be read after reading King Perry.