"Kingmaker" First Look: Gory, Lore-y, Socialist Steampunk Fun

8 min read

I am not what you would call a “lore fiend”. When I dive into a fantasy or science fiction series, I tend to be far more interested in the characters and their dynamics than the scope of the world, much less its fine details. Ask me my thoughts on Kaz Brekker as a character and we’ll be here for hours, but it took me a solid thirty seconds to remember the name of the city Six of Crows takes place in.

That being said, I am putting in my merch request here and now for a map of fiction podcast Kingmaker’s Valorian Socialist Republic to go on my kitchen wall.

Kingmaker is the type of show that not just lives, but thrives in the fine details. Here’s the basic scoop: on her twenty-first birthday, which is also the twenty-first anniversary of a revolution that overthrew her country’s former monarchy, Colette Geise grows a rock out of her head. That rock is the mysterious and incredibly powerful Kingmaker diamond. A magical gem that can explode exploitative bosses’ heads (long story) attracts attention, including that of the wunderkind fleshcrafter Ariadne Culver, who wants either Colette’s hand in marriage for her son, Leonid, or the gem in her head, in order to restore the country to its “former glory”. On the run from this dastardly duo, Colette joins up with another, slightly less-dastardly pair: revolutionary artificer Eisen Iyer, and the enigmatic and gentile immortal (maybe??) Telesphore Winterlich. Together, our smuggling trio set out to pry the gem from Colette’s head before anyone else gets blown up – a quest I assume they will fail in the first five minutes of episode two. At least, here’s hoping.

Each member of our main cast, as well as the two villains, have wonderfully distinct and unique voices, essential in any kind of fiction podcast. Standouts include the man of a billion voices himself, Josh Rubino (Windfall, Caravan), as the ever-classy and charmingly snippy Telesphore, and Zane Schacht (Two Flat Earthers Kidnap A Freemason, Space Man of Planet Patrol) as the whiny and exceptionally fun to hate Leonid Culver. But anyone who knows me knows that my stan card was instantly laminated for Ariadne the moment she turned her hand into a bone knife and chose violence. What can I say? Ianthe Tridentarius “girls” never lose.

These two groups of characters play off of each other exceptionally well, especially Ariadne and Leonid. The best kinds of villains are “genuinely terrifying” and “particularly sparkly tomato target”, so seeing them combined into one villainous duo is sure to result in both hilarity and chills down the spine.

Speaking of chills, this show’s sound design is crisp and utterly delicious to the ears. The score, prominent narration, and action each flow into each other in a way that’s very easy to follow, making Kingmaker one of my new top picks for someone just getting into fiction podcasts. The different magic systems clearly had a lot of care and time put into their sound design, with Eisen’s slaying of the mantelope in episode one being a particular favorite.

The mantelope itself is just one of the many strange and intriguing creatures populating the Valorian Socialist Republic, many drawings of which can be found on the show’s Twitter and Tumblr, as well as in the animated trailer that was released as a teaser.  As someone who was on podcast Twitter the day it dropped, I can attest that it made waves.

Podcasts have long taken multimedia approaches to promotion and advertising, but Kingmaker strikes me as both particularly inventive and dedicated in those efforts. If you’re looking for worldbuilding and bonus details galore, look no further than its Tumblr. From the aforementioned map, to doctored photographs, to creature designs and more, there is so much care and detail evident in the trappings of this world. Listening to the show while scrolling through the blog feels like stepping into the workshop of a particularly enthusiastic DM, eager to show you every facet of the sandbox they’ve created to play in.

Even in just the podcast, that sandbox already feels expansive and bursting with possibility. Do you like political dramas that focus on the ordinary citizens of the setting and feature governmental systems other than monarchy and democracy? Do you like hard magic systems with just enough wiggle room to cram a bunch of steampunk science in there for extra cool factor? Do you like a tightly paced plot that pulls you through the world with the force of a recently invented runaway motor carriage? This is going to be a very good October for you.

Speaking of hard magic systems, Kingmaker does an absolutely bang-up job with the execution of its own. For the non-SFF nerds among us, “hard magic” refers to a system of magic in a fantasy story that has hard and fast rules about how it operates, hence the name. These rules cover things like who can use said magic, how they can use it, what that magic can do, and what the consequences are for performing it. A great example of this would be the previously mentioned Six of Crows duology and its companion series, The Grisha Trilogy. The world of the grisha has a specific group of people able to perform magic, sub-groups of different magical fields, and names for the distinct abilities within those sub-groups. Practitioners of The Small Science study for years to learn the ins and outs of their specific class, and over the course of the story we learn the clear-cut rules of how it's practiced and what it can and cannot do.

A mock-up of the front page of an in-universe magazine called Kingmaker with a diamond logo; this is the first page of their press kit. On ribbons below the title, it says "By Meg Tuten Est. 2022" and then Monsters! Magic! Strange Worlds! The top two corners have snippets of ads within the world: "See Crystal City by Air! Tours include: Botanical Gardens, Feverite memorial, Crystal Castle. Coupon inside!" and "Ladies of Valor - Get the ideal figure... WITHOUT a corset! Alvin Glass - flesh mage extraordinaire! Write to 456 Zenacker Place, Crystal City". The headline of the magazine is "25 Year Old Mystery Deepens! Missing piece of royal fortune found embedded in the skull of a young woman." This is Issue number 1, and the Price is One Quarter Mark. The featured image is a cartoon drawing of the three protagonists in front of a carriage, with the vague shape of a big city in the distance behind them. A woman in a Victorian dress covered in blood is holding her hand to her hair where there is a glowing blue light. The two people behind her are smiling at the camera -- one is clearly some kind of magical worksmith holding a wrench glowing green and wearing goggles on their head. The other is tall and broad, with red hair; he is tipping his beret and winking at the camera.

The trouble with hard magic systems is that they are often extremely complex and detailed, easily luring writers into the trap of telling rather than showing. What sets Kingmaker a cut above the rest is how deftly the world’s hard magic system is conveyed, not just through concise and clever narration, but mostly through us listening to the characters practice it and encounter it in their everyday lives. It’s a trick many fantasy series struggle to pull off, and to do so in the first episode should be soundly commended.

Despite how fun this show is to listen to, the audio mixing leaves something to be desired. Some characters sound markedly quieter than others even when they’re supposed to be in close proximity to the listener’s POV, and the last fourth of episode one suddenly became noticeably quieter as a whole. While this doesn’t detract much from the show, it is distracting, especially to listeners more familiar with the standards of how a fiction podcast should be mixed and mastered. Some dialogue also feels a bit too exposition-heavy, even for a pilot episode, and there are moments where it shoves world-building and environmental information in the audience’s face rather than letting them organically discover it via sound design and clever writing. Luckily, fixing these opening missteps should be an easy task that completes the polished sheen on an otherwise excellent-sounding show.

To stand out from the crowd as an independently produced audio drama these days, shows have to do something bold. Kingmaker, ever the overachiever, seemingly has decided to do several bold things at once, combining a unique and intriguing premise with crackerjack visual design that solves one of the trickiest hurdles in marketing an audio drama: appealing to humans’ preference for visual storytelling when utilizing an audio medium. Kingmaker’s approach? Draw the listener in with a show that looks great, and sounds like this autumn’s most trickster-filled treat.

Kingmaker's first episode drops Friday, October 7th.

Newton “Newt” Schottelkotte (they/them) is a producer, sound designer, VA, and all-around podcasting person from Nashville, TN. In addition to writing about podcasts, they produce them, including Where the Stars Fell, Mini Marconis, and Inkwyrm, as the head of Caldera Studios, and can be found sharing their skills and love for audio storytelling throughout the audio drama community. Newt enjoys getting outdoors, knowing way too much about the history of country music, and attempting to be funny on Twitter. Find out more about Newt on their website.