Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A book review: "The Briar King"

Lately I've been thinking how I would like to read something with a feel of a classic, stereotypical high fantasy. Lately I've been reading and watching SF, romance, innovative fantasy and so on, but I had a yearning for something really classical. Something including knights and princesses (or at least some kind of royalty), magic that doesn't resemble science (like in Brandon Sanderson's books) and it is mystical, a nice romantic relationship... You know, something "fantastic". I do have a long wishlist on Amazon, but I wasn't really sure what to buy that meets this requirements.

So, I decided for already finished serial, written by Greg Keyes, named "The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone". There are four books, with king, prince, knight and queen in titles. I didn't know much about plot, just that it involves some princess, medieval-ish world and big enemy connected with flora. I added these books to my wishlist a long time ago so I decided to give it a go and ordered first two books. After reading prologue, my thoughts were "Oh, no!! How could I made such a mistake and order another quasi-fantasy!?".

source: Amazon.com

But, I turned out that prologue doesn't have much with the events in the first book. Or, to be more precise, things that bothered me don't have much relevance. Instead, it is a nice touch and a way to make a connection between the world from books with our world (just like Mercedes-Benz sign or mentioning of names from our time in "The Wheel of Time" books).

There are several plots, following each of POV characters. Central character would probably be Princess Anne. She is the youngest of four children, some fifteen years at the start of the book, tomboyish in manners and looking like her famous ancestor, Virgenya Elizabeth Dare. She enjoys fantasizing about princes and knight, likes ridding her horse and escaping her guards. She has first encounter with her romantic side when she meets a dashing knight Sir Roderik, but things are not simple or idealistic as she believes. Aspar White is a King's holter (title for woodsman/ranger) in charge of King's forest. He leads a good life, interesting, but without many surprises. But he will find himself feeling outside of his league when he goes off to investigate rumors of strange happenings in the forest. He will have a short adventure with Stephen Darige after he saves him from forest bandits. Stephen is a scholar with a great talent for languages and history, on a way to becoming a monk in the monastery with most famous library. But he too will find out that Church has its secrets and that some apples are rotten. From one of the allies of Kingdom of Eslen, arrives Neil Meqvren, with dreams of becoming a knight and a royal guard. He is unaccustomed to life at court, but his martial prowess, honor and bravery with earn him a title of knight. But instead of becoming King's protection, he will be first member of Queen Muriele's guard. However, the Queen is hard to guard, because, although she is a women, she has much influence, over her husband and in her own right and doesn't hesitate to use when she sees it fit. But she too has problems, one of them her stubborn daughter Anne. And King William I, the King of Eslen and Emperor of Crothany, has probably the biggest problems. Never in peace with their neighbors, kingdom of Hanza, lately situation has taken a turn to worst. Not to mention their internal problems. Of course, life of young Casio of Avella, small town far from Eslen, is much different. He is a poor but skillful master duelist, rich only in honor and pride.

All this life will be connected when some ancient evil starts stirring. Evil that has been almost forgotten except in oldest histories or stories of old village-witches. Evil rumored to be more horrible and older then ancient Skasloi, who once ruled this whole world, but were defeated by army led by Virgenya Elisabeth Dare, some 2300 years ago.

Plot, characters and themes, even world in same points, resemble those in "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" by Tad Williams. But personally, it reminded me more of George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" serial. Although at much smaller scope; Martin's books have few dozens of POV character and world is much more detailed and rougher. But nevertheless, feeling was similar, at least to me.

World is typically medieval: rich kings, royalty and knights, poor peasants, important Church. Reading is considered a rare talent, but on the other hand, there are colleges and schools, some even not connected to the Church. There are no advanced inventions, like compass, steam or gunpowder, at least not mentioned so far. Although, there is one interesting thing: polders like in Netherlands. Magic is existing, but very rare. Common folk talk about shinecraft, but rarely see it in real life. Church has some special abilities granted by means of Saints, and there are orders that know some kinds of spells. But regular people will live whole life without encounter with something supernatural. Of course, this is about to change... Except of regular humans, there is at least one other common race, named Sefrys, and they greatly resemble Gypsies.

Characters are classical for these types of books, but they are nicely written. Don't expect depth like Gene Wolfe's Severian, but neither they are totally stereotypical as with Feist. You can believe in them as real persons, and they are able to give you an occasional surprise. There are other, less important characters, but you will not have to write a "dramatis personae" to help you to remember them all.

Plot is interesting and tense. It was hard to leave the book, because there are no boring chapters. You can predict some events, but I think that is how author intended it, not because of his inadequate skills.

My only objection was revelation of the Big Enemy at the end of the book. It leaves impression of something our heroes will not have much trouble with. But, there is a big possibility that I am mistaken and this is just a small revelation of his full powers so he will become much more dangerous later. Even more so, I could be completely mistaken about him being the Big Enemy! That is left to be seen.

In short, one of the greatest books I have read in a while, at least in department of classical high fantasy. You will not be disappointed with this book, if that is what you are looking for. But, I will wait with final recommendation until reading the next book, to see if it will maintain this level of quality.

I will be reading next part immediately, so my next post will be about "The Charnel Prince"

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