Switching it up this time to a review of the first book in what may turn out to be one of the more worthwhile epic fantasy series being written at the moment, The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone by Greg Keyes.
Those unfamiliar with this series or think perhaps they have not read Greg’s work may have read other fine efforts by him like the Age of Unreason series or perhaps Waterborn or Blackgod under the name J. Gregor Keyes. Viable and worthwhile epic fantasy has become more and more of a chore to find for some time now for me, however a few authors are keeping us on our toes with current series like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and somewhere definitively after those names (and above more others) is where I think Keyes’ Kingdom of Thorn and Bone fits in starting with The Briar King.
It’s a time of change in the kingdom of Crotheny, both due to the ambitions of various mortal factions and a miscalculated reckoning caused by a battle for freedom some 2 millennia ago, slaves too back there liberties against the Skalois, led by a powerful mage, whose progeny would sire both Queens and Kings, a prize with unheeded and forgotten future consequences, that seem not to matter directly after Virgenya Dare’s magical assault that gave humanity its liberty. The words spoken by the defeated former Master to Dare, more a curse than words of spite, in reply to Dare’s words of triumph.
“We are not your slaves”:
“You were born slaves. You will die slaves. You have merely summoned a new master. The daughters of your seed will face what you have wrought, and it will obliterate them”
Some 2000 years later in Crotheny, a power stirs in the King’s Forest; human sacrifices are being conducted, and both mammal and fish are found unnaturally dead. The occurrences are viewed as a forthcoming omen to its ancient denizens the Sefry, who are evacuating their ancient homes. At the same time, in the capitol an attempt is made on the life of Queen Muriele, a direct descendant of Virginia Dare, and blame is shifting toward the rival nation of Hanzish.
Keyes uses POV chapters in the series to drive his narrative, and all offer for some quality reading, although admittedly the characters are rather archetypical, even if they are present in a worthwhile story. The characters themselves didn’t impress on me as being nearly thoughtful as some of the series mentioned above but they are adequate, and not so much a negative as much as it isn’t astounding.
Some of the POV’s Keyes uses include the King’s Holter, Aspar White, (which is an interesting title for Aspar one that I haven’t run across before). White is a loyal man of the King pleased to be in charge of the forest where he feels more at home than anywhere else, his origin of being associated and once in love with a Selfry, a people he has come to personally disdain, even while honoring and loving the memories of a past relationship. Aspar’s travels will take us into the forest to investigate the aforementioned queer occurrences, and his pragmatic nature being the subject of brushes with the fantastic, and mythical keep him off balance (although not more so than a blossoming relationship between him and his companion on the journey Winna) all the way to the doorstep of the perhaps the harbinger of the end of times.
In the beginning portions of the novel Aspar saves a young aspiring monk, Steven Darige from bandits who have kidnapped him on his ways a place of study. Steven Darige becomes another POV character, a gifted linguist, with a love for history and thirst for knowledge (especially those arcane in nature apparently), he presented by far to me the most interesting of the characters to read about. Through Steven we see glimpses of the theocracy present in Everon.
The finest part of the The Briar King in my opinion was Keyes’ choice of a source of “magic”, which is directly tied into past Saints and where they rest, and gained by walking “there path” called faineways. One gains certain abilities or augments those they may already have by successfully traversing these paths. The trials differing with each faineway and individual, they really amount to a spiritual, emotional, and physical pilgrimage to see if one is worth the blessing and gift of that particular Saint. I think the best examples of Keyes writing in The Briar King occur in his depiction of Steven and his journey through a faineway:
“When he woke to all of this on the third day, he wondered if he was already dead. He remembered his grandfather talking about how death prepares the old by taking their senses one at a time. How old did that make Stephen now, a hundred? He was crippled, deaf, and half blind.”
I really like the Faineway element Keyes decided to use for Kingdom of Thorn and Bone, and for the most part enjoyed the Steven character due to the elements introduced in his chapters, and at the beginning when he met Aspar as there dialogue provided for perhaps the only accounts in the novel that were truly above marginal. Again a theme in this novel, in my opinion, the dialogue wasn’t bad by any means it, but like the characterizations I didn’t find it to be a very noticeable strength of the novel It seems Keyes is not going to ignore religion either as belief structure present (or absent) in individual characters or as a special interest group, which I admire.
Another POV character is young Anne Dare, youngest daughter of Muriele, who fills the “young girl with big destiny” role in the novel, and although it comes of seemingly obvious it avoids going so far as to annoy. The attempt on Murielle’s life caused her husband and King, William, to send her and their children away for safety at the fortified Cal Azorth. Her mother sends Anne to Coven, a female boarding school of sorts that specializes in the training of future elite assassins.
Anne accompanied by her faithful friend Austra is the subject of a destiny tied to her secret communications with ancestral powers, and their common bloodline. We will also meet Neil MaqVren a young newly anointed knight, who becomes protector of the Queen, and fills the “great warrior, with noble heart” role. His chapters are what one would think such a characters chapters would be like, thus you appreciate the events we are able to see through him more than reading about him. Later on, we are introduced to a duo, a Master Fencer and his student/friend, Cazio who in some instances reminded me of Goldman’s Inigo Montoya particularly due to another strong element apparent in The Briar King and that is Keyes noticeable attempts to create some parallels with his world to our own in a vague bizzaro/alternative history way, giving certain areas and there inhabitants in Everon synonymous characteristics from our own world history.
This is something Keyes excels at, as all one has to do is look to his aforementioned Age of Unreason work for proof of that. Keyes does this a variety of ways either by various linguistic elements, depicting of architecture, clothing, or just by choice of names structure or the names themselves.
The Witch-mage who guided humanity to freedom, Virgenya Dare mentioned before obviously correlating with a woman from our own history Virginia Dare, was the first child born of English parents in the New World, and a member of the historical lost colony of Roanoke is just one example. Cazio provides a bit of flair and style in contrast to the really gritty nature of the other characters and their storylines, offering a nice departure. Through these characters and others, Greg Keyes shows us a land heading toward war, both of a personal nature, and of the land itself (both politically and literally).
There are a lot of things I enjoyed about the The Briar King, and a couple of elements that don’t work for me in as well in the novel, one and foremost the pacing in regards to the happenings, particularly the personal relationships that occur in the novel occur at a rather unbelievable rate that borders on contrivance and born of plot necessity.
This could stem from not getting as much out of what I feel is pretty lackluster and at time horrendous dialogue that encompasses the whole novel, that coupled with a prose that really didn’t engross me at certain key climax points in the novel. Only twice did I stop and admire the narrative after the prologue and that was during Steven’s travels through the faineway, and when Keyes was describing the fortress of Thornrath through the eyes of Neil as he saw I for the first time while aboard a ship in Foambreaker Bay on the way to Eslen as they docked:
“The docks bustled with men and women half seen by lamplight. Faces came and went-beautiful, sinister, innocent, brutal-all mere impressions appearing and vanishing like ghosts, going to and from ships, greeting and parting, slinking and carry burdens. Gutted fish, hot tar, burning kerosene, and ripe sewage perfumed the air”
Certain points in the novel disappointed me from a descriptive level, I just didn’t feel the appearance of the Briar King was really as ominous as I would have expected. The descriptive writing really failed, not in totality but in key moments in the novel for me. The characters are for the most part represent tried and true archetypes, and although Keyes adds his own touches they don’t distract you from the fact, and all the characters that represent our POV’s seem to have some very unique origin or future destiny that did admittedly wear on me.
Not to say the characters weren’t enjoyable to read, but I was reading more to find out what differences they would have from other characters I have read about, more than to read about new characters. I liked the magic system employed by Keyes, I like the role of religious institutions, which augments another strength the history Keyes gives his setting, and the different interpretations of various legends and myths from the different people of the world (again showcased through Steven).
I enjoyed the instances where Keyes loosely ties his world to traditions and history of our own, and I really enjoyed the chats William (the Emperor) and later Muriele have with their “guest” in the dungeons. Although much his made about Keyes not being coy of killing off characters (which is a good thing) and I am grateful for that, but I think honestly we have to look at what characters were done away with and where do they really rank with the reader in relevance at the time of there deaths. Not belittling the welcomed element but they certainly weren’t any of the characters that would I construed as having the most relevance when reading the novel.
All in all, I feel The Briar King is an admirable, and solid first installment to a series that is definitely above average as far as current epic fantasy goes. The second book The Charnel Prince follows up nicely which should make the third and forthcoming novel of the planned quadrology, I just don’t think some of the comparisons (which at time I myself am admittedly guilty of) to the handful of elite examples of current epic fantasy are apt.
Although Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon was admittedly a bit uneven and choppy at times, and some found R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before a bit of a chore to get into at the beginning, I don’t consider The Briar King to share that same tier of series debut novels of the current top examples of epic fantasy, and I certainly don’t think it compares well with the series it is most often mentioned with (or perhaps the other way around more aptly) Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Keyes grasp and depictions of his characters by no means equals Martin, who juggles several more characters and yet they still seem much more fleshed out and given much more depth than Keyes does with his fewer POVS. Nor is the scope of the plot as large or near as intricate as the one introduced to us in A Game of Thrones. All that said, that is certainly no knock, aside from those 3 authors, and perhaps a couple more sporadic examples (perhaps a recent Guy Gavriel Kay novel, or Gene Wolfe effort) Keyes work definitely shines above most of the series available to fans of epic fantasy currently.
Definitely recommended to the epic-minded fan to give a spin.