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Monday, March 17, 2008

"The Born Queen" by Greg Keyes

Order “The Born QueenHERE

In fantasy literature, particularly that subset known as ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy, there are certain authors and series that are universally recognized by fans—including Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia, George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time just to name a few—but the genre is much vaster than many readers realize and there are a number of terrific series out there that can be just as entertaining and rewarding as anything produced by the field’s superstars even though they aren’t afforded the same fanfare or recognition. The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone by Greg Keyes is such a series.

A quadrilogy, The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone began in 2002 with “The Briar King” and transported readers to Crotheny, a kingdom heavily influenced by European medievalism and the Roanoke colony and was founded over two thousand years earlier when the Born Queen Virgenya Dare freed humanity from the enslavement of the Skasloi demons. By the novel’s end, a daring plot to take over the throne had been carried out, a creature of myth & folklore was awakened, an ancient prophecy was revealed, and the law of death was broken, thus setting the stage for what promised to be an exciting new series in epic fantasy. Fortunately “The Charnel Prince” was, if anything, even better and while “The Blood Knight” suffered some from that dreaded ‘middle volume syndrome’, all of the pieces were put in place for a dramatic endgame…

For three books now, readers have followed the memorable adventures of Virgenya Dare’s descendant Anne Dare, the king’s holter Aspar White, the honorable knight Neil MqVren, the studious monk Stephen Darige, and the roguish Vitellian dessrator Cazio among others, and in “The Born QueenGreg Keyes delivers the payoff. Storylines converge, major questions are answered—Will Anne save the kingdom or destroy it? Who is Kauron? Will Cazio ever find out who murdered his father and does he love Austra more or Anne? Where is the fourth Faith? Will Aspar ever get his revenge against Fend? Is Hespero an enemy or an ally? What are the three thrones of power? Will Neil ever find love & happiness? Who is the author of The Codex Tereminnam—destines are fulfilled, and not everyone survives to the end. Of course getting to that point is half the fun, and like the previous books “The Born Queen” is narrated from several different point-of-views where numerous plotlines are occurring at the same time. These include Anne growing into her role as Queen and discovering the full extent of her power while waging war against Hansa and the Church; Aspar fulfilling his geos to the Sarnwood Witch who wishes to birth a new Briar King; Stephen searching for—and finding—Virgenya Dare’s lost journal and the secret faneway that granted her the power to defeat the Skasloi; and Leovigild Ackenzal trying to compose a song that will mend the boundary between life & death which continues to unravel, while complicating matters even further is the prophetic Hellrune, the unkillable Robert Dare, the Kept, and the return of the Black Jester, all leading to an unforgettable convergence at the place where it all started…Eslen.

Because of the medieval setting, the alternating narratives and the realistic stance that Greg takes with his characterization & worldbuilding, The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone is often described as
George R. R. Martin-lite. Now while I can understand the comparison to GRRM’s A Song of Ice & Fire series, personally I was reminded more of Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars saga and David Farland’s the Runelords; the former partly because of the strong religious emphasis and its own ASOIAF comparisons, and the latter for its breathtaking action & nightmarish monsters. Of course The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone has its own personal idiosyncrasies like the cliffhangers that end the chapters and are picked up later in the story, but after the fact; how swiftly times moves in the book—sometimes days or weeks will flash by from one sentence to the next—and how Greg draws on his experience in both anthropology & fencing for key elements in the story such as the fencing connoisseur Cazio, Stephen’s expertise in linguistics, and Aspar’s distinctive accent ;)

As far as the series being criticized for having stereotypical characters and a plot that utilizes numerous fantasy tropes, I can’t refute either accusation but I do think it’s blown out of proportion. For instance, while the characters may be molded from familiar templates they are all extremely likeable, have different voices from one another, convincingly evolve throughout the series—particularly Anne and Stephen—and are surprisingly complex morally. This is most evident in “The Born Queen” where heroes become villains, enemies become allies, and saviors arise from the most unlikely of places :) Of the story, it’s true that Greg employs several common plot conventions that will be recognizable to experienced fantasy readers, but at least he writes them with flair and does offer a unique spin here or there which mixes things up. Once again this is especially true in “The Born Queen” where a number of revelations were refreshingly unexpected, although I have to admit the ending was a bit textbook, specifically how many characters lived to see their ‘happily ever after’. In short, yes Greg Keyes’ The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone is largely traditional fantasy, but it’s traditional fantasy done right.

In closing, The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone may never be held in the same esteem as
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time or Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, especially in terms of depth and complexity, but taken on its own merit Greg’s series is an exciting, skillfully rendered epic that both embraces and challenges the fantasy genre, and can be a wonderful experience if given the chance. As for myself, I really enjoyed the first three volumes in The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone and with the highly satisfying conclusion Greg Keyes has only confirmed the series as one of my favorite fantasy epics of all time…


Mark Newton said...

I've really enjoyed the first couple of books in this series. Yes, the characters aren't groundbreaking, but that's not what it's meant to be. It's a well-told story, fun and intelligent. It's difficult to carve out such fun and interesting characters. The Briar King was the strongest. I think for me the third book lost it's way a little. Much of the charm went. But I might have to check out the final one to see how he's finished it off...

Anonymous said...

Good to hear. I'm looking forward to this one!

Graeme Flory said...

This is one of my (if not 'the') most anticipated titles of 2008. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading the first three books and cannot wait to get stuck into this one!
Glad you enjoyed it ;o)

Robert said...

I don't think "The Born Queen" is the strongest of the four--personally "The Charnel Prince" is my favorite--but as a whole, the book does a good job of closing out the series and I would recommend checking it out Mark :)

David, Graeme, I don't think you'll be disappointed and look forward to your thoughts on the book :D

Aidan Moher said...

I'll admit that I'm intensely jealous of you, Robert.

I'm one of the biggest fans of this series and I'm glad to see it getting its due here on your blog.

Can't wait to get my own hands on a copy!

A Dribble of Ink

Anonymous said...

The Briar King is one of my favourite fantasy novels of recent years. In particular, I loved the strong feel of history and myth. The next two books, to my great dissapointment, seemed to lose this and become much more standard fare (albeit still good fun). Hopefully the fourth book will pick up a bit.

Anonymous said...

I read the Briar King last summer and it stuck with me, so I just picked up the Charnel Prince last week and started reading it. I agree Keyes has fun and flair and lots of action. I feel his cultures and worldbuilding have great depth and nuance, especially with the folklore elements. He's nothing groundbreaking, but he delivers a good story with good characters, so I'm on board so far with this seires. To compliment Keyes, he's very good at setting scenes and setting up conflict and romantic/sexual tensions between some of the characters.

Andrew Peterson said...

Two things:

1. Thank you for the kind review of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and I hope you enjoy its sequel, on which I should be working right now.

2. I was so happy to see you reviewing The Born Queen. I haven't enjoyed a fantasy series as much as this one in quite a while (especially the first book). I'm rooting for Greg Keyes.

Robert said...

Aidan, well I'm very jealous that you got a copy of "Last Argument of Kings" so I guess we're even :) I hope you enjoy the book!

Steve I think I'm going to have to go back and re-read "The Briar King" because while I enjoyed it, I didn't think it was the strongest in the series, but it seems like a lot of people disagree :)

Tracy, thanks for the comment. Greg does a lot of things right, all of which you mentioned including the worldbuilding, creating mythology, delivering stylish action and of course the character interactions :) Anyways, I'm glad you're liking the series so far and hope you'll enjoy the rest of it!

Andrew, once again you're welcome and I can't wait for the sequel! Also, happy to hear your a Greg Keyes fan :D

Anonymous said...

The first fantasy book i ever read was The Waterborn by J. Gregory Keyes. Because the cover looked cool. I loved it so much i got the sequel, The Blackgod, and i was blown away. It was the funnest thing i ever read. So i found out about the Briar King and reluctantly got a copy. Because the cover looked dumb. And the title was weird. But i started reading it.

And i am so glad. I love this series. I'm a fantasy rookie but i think these books are awesome. The Born Queen was a tiny bit unsatisfying at the end, but up to that point the series was so fun for me to read, it was worth a second reading. And a third.

The first time i read the series i didn't know that Virgenya Dare was taken from Earth by the Skasloi and her people thought they were actually in Virginia in the United States (the "new world") but they got abducted to Crotheny instead. The Roanoke colony. Pretty cool tho. The Skasloi abducting slaves from different universes. Even our own. I just think thats a really cool twist that's not actually in the books.


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