I've decided on the simpler issue-by-issue format for this review since this series leads into "War of Kings" and I'm pretty sure I'm going to use this format for that event. It looks like that event has a lot of different series running through it, and I found it awkward during "Annihilation: Conquest" using the larger overall arc format that I used for that event. For example, I wound up recapping the "Nova" tie-in issues as three separate arcs, with two appearing after I reviewed "Annihilation: Conquest," despite the fact that they actually happened concurrent to the event. Anyway, enough shop talk. The point is that I'm going to recap "War of Kings" issue-by-issue because it allows me to do it sequentially. Onto the reviews! "War of Kings" starts here!
X-Men: Kingbreaker #1: OK, we don't really see much actually happen in this issue. Korvus, Lilandra, and Rachel steal back the Starjammer, and the Shi'Ar capture yet another world in their expansionary war. The main focus of the issue, though, is the fact that Vulcan is stark-raving mad. Rather than spend his time leading the troops on the front or rallying the populace at home, Vulcan is supervising the torture of Alex, Ch'od, Lorna, and Raza. Havok correctly notes to Vulcan that he's won, because, despite Vulcan being Emperor, he still keeps coming to Alex waiting for Alex to bow to him, something Alex swears he won't do. The issue ends with the reveal that Havok isn't as powerless as he's let his captors think he is. Methinks a jailbreak is in the works.
X-Men: Kingbreaker #2: OK, a lot goes down here. Lilandra tricks Gladiator, getting close enough to him (by pretending to seek his support) so that Rachel can read his mind for the location of Alex and the gang. Gabriel recruits the four most dangerous criminals held by the Shi'Ar to go after Korvus, Lilandra, and Rachel. Although the trio manage to escape the foursome, the foursome do manage to ascertain their destination, the world where Alex and the gang are being held. Meanwhile, Alex breaks free of his imprisonment and frees Ch'od, Lorna, and Raza, telling them that they're going to make their stand against Vulcan there. Vulcan, meanwhile, murders emissaries sent by the Galactic Council to clarify the Shi'Ar's intentions, thereby, well, clarifying his intentions. Yost is turning up the temperature, moving the story along at a good clip. My only complaint is that Yost doesn't really provide a reason for why Alex chose that moment to escape. (It seems overly convenient that he did it just in time for Lilandra, Rachel, and Korvus to arrive to help them.) Otherwise, so far, I'm a pretty happy camper. Plus, lest I forget, let me take a moment and praise Weaver's artwork. He not only gives us the sexiest Gladiator I've ever seen, but he also manages to excel at both small moments -- like Gladiator and Lilandra's conversation -- and epic ones -- like the battle between the trio and the foursome. He seems a really inspired choice for this series, that has so much emotion running through it, yet is also set against a galactic backdrop.
(I will note that I'm a little vague on two larger continuity points, though it's not Yost's fault. First, the Galactic Council refers several times to the Shi'Ar sitting out the Annihilation Wave. But, I thought that it was unable to assist in the Annihilation Wave because it was in the middle of fending off Vulcan's attack. Maybe the Council just doesn't realize that? It would make sense, but, since Yost doesn't make that explicitly clear, I'm not entire sure. Second, the Council refers to the destruction of the Kree Empire. I'm assuming it's referring to the events of "Annihilation" and "Annihilation: Conquest," which didn't exactly destroy the Kree Empire, just severely impaired it. I'm also vaguely aware that this event is happening at the same time as "Secret Invasion," so I'm not sure if I'm just missing some part of a different story.)
X-Men: Kingbreaker #3: Okey-dokey, we've got a lot of ground to cover here. OK, first things first. Yost apparently read my mind, because he explicitly has Vulcan mention the events of "Annihilation" and "Annihilation: Conquest" as the cause of the weakening of the Kree Empire. He also mentions something that led me to a little Internet research, that Black Bolt took over the Empire from Ronan as part of "Secret Invasion." So, I'm a lot less vague on where this story falls in terms of continuity than I was last issue. (Thanks, Chris.) Moving onto the events of the issue itself, Yost really hits the gas here. First, I appreciated him having Polaris chide Alex for letting them fall so far as considering letting the escaped prisoners kill the Shi'Ar guards. Alex and Rachel were both fairly bloodthirsty throughout "Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire" and "X-Men: Emperor Vulcan." In fact, I had noticed reference to Rachel killing Shi'Ar warriors in issue #1. I'm glad someone is reminding Alex that the line between avengers and murderers gets really blurry when you spend too much time embracing lethal methods. Second, I just have to compliment Yost on a really tightly scripted series so far. Everything really flows logically from one event to the next. Lilandra, Rachel, and Vulcan make their way to the world where Alex and the gang are located, but they reveal their hand to the criminals Vulcan has dispatched to kill them, putting Vulcan on their tail. Moreover, I like that Yost makes Korvus savvy enough to know that the criminals would know where they're going. Also, I liked how Gladiator was in the dark about the foursome. It shows just how manipulative -- and commanding -- Vulcan is. When he appears at the end with the Imperial Guard, you really felt his presence, the sense that this lunatic controls an incredible amount of power. I can't wait to see what happens in the end.
X-Men: Kingbreaker #4: Yost pulls out all the stops in this finale. First, I loved that Yost has Vulcan pay the consequences for his short-sighted decision to release the criminals. Gladiator would have surely defeated a de-powered Havok, but he's distracted when he sees his traitorous cousin, Xenith. Then, in perhaps the most brilliant moment in the series, the arrival of the Hodinn allows Havok to re-power, putting him on a level equal to Vulcan. Yost uses both these moments to turn the tables on Vulcan and show how immature and impulsive he is, given that they're both a direct result of his decision to free the criminals. Second, we finally (finally!) see some semblance of emotional connection between Alex and Gabriel. As I think I've previously mentioned, Gabriel is essentially the Marvel Universe's Jason Todd. However, the authors of the various Bat-books have done a great job showing the Bat-family's heartbreak over the way they've failed Jason. When it comes to Gabriel, the Summers brothers have seem remarkably incurious about the horrors Gabriel faced as a slave. Here, with Gabriel failing under Alex's barrage, he recalls the horrors he faced, and Alex for possibly the first time shows some sense of understanding, noting that they would've helped him if he had not killed Corsair. (Of course, I'm pretty sure Alex had decided to kill Gabriel when he realized how insane he was, not when he killed Corsair. Moreover, this position seems remarkably un-X-Men-y, given that Xavier has thrown open his doors to Magneto and Sabretooth in the past, not to mention Wolverine. But, I digress.) Finally, I like how Yost, again, doesn't give us a neat ending. Whereas it was Alex who suffered a loss (Corsair) at the end of "Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire," it's Garbiel here who has to suffer one (Deathbird). But, on a larger scale, both sides wind up engaging in chaotic retreats as the prison collapses around them. Just like in "X-Men: Emperor Vulcan," the Starjammers are forced to leave behind someone (a symbiote-possessed Raza), a decision Lilandra has to make to save their lives by teleporting them to the Starjammer before the prison fully collapses (much to the anger of Alex, who wanted to stay to fight Vulcan to the death). Vulcan is left to contemplate the loss of Deathbird and manage the expansion of the Empire, creating essentially two Imperial Guards, one to fight the war, and the other to go after the Starjammers. Yost keeps on giving us essentially a series of "Empire Strikes Back" episodes, with no "Return of the Jedi" to bring us closure. It's why I enjoyed this series and "X-Men: Emperor Vulcan" so much. Everyone ends the series a little worse for the wear, with no clear victory to make their sacrifices seem worthwhile and only the promise of more struggles ahead of them.
Final Thoughts: I can't think of a better way to set up "War of Kings" than the last few pages of the final issue, with the Starjammers seeking help from the Kree Empire, now ruled by Black Bolt. By giving us the Galactic Council sub-plot, Yost has made it clear that the other galactic powers understand the threat posed by a Vulcan-ruled Shi'Ar Empire, explaining why the Kree Emperor would listen to a former Shi'Ar Empress. Honestly, I'm hard pressed to find any real fault with this series. Yost still manages to make Vulcan a sympathetic character, despite the horrors he inflicts on others. It would've been easy for him to Doom-ify him, but he never goes there. Moreover, he never exonerates Vulcan for his behaviors, laying the responsibility firmly at his feet, even if he makes us understand why he's behaving this way. Yost also makes Alex and Rachel seem less blood-thirsty in this issue. If their previous...exuberance, if you will, was based on the rage they were feeling in the moment, you can feel how weary they are of that rage, how much the difficult decisions (good and bad) they've made are weighing on them. The fact that Yost ends this series with everyone having a long way to go is great. If you're a "fan" of Havok or Vulcan, I think it's a must-read series.