The Briar King, Part II
[SPOILED: This post contains spoilers for The Briar King, by Greg Keyes]
"Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today." -James Dean
I finished The Briar King, Book 1 of Greg Keyes' series The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone, and am very pleasantly surprised. It's fairly standard fantasy stuff - an ancient evil awakes, there are stoic knights and a gruff old soldier, and a plucky princess - all familiar ingredients, for sure, but Mr. Keyes distinguishes himself in both the crafting of his tale and the roles he assigns to his female characters. Keyes likes fairly short chapters, averaging 6-8 pages in my mass market paperback, which helps keep the story humming along. He doesn't have Joe Abercrombie's organic sense of pacing (Abercrombie is a film editor, and as you read his books you can notice chapter ending with a beat - an audio cue or visual flourish - that is mirrored or echoed in the start of the next chapter), but he does know when to stop a scene in a way that will leave the reader tense and wanting to know more. (There's an art to that. Dan Brown, for example, author of The Da Vinci Code, does not have it. He tries to create tension by ending a chapter at the apex of action - the character puts a key in the lock of the safe and turns it… The character stops mid-sentence, about to reveal who the conspiracy points to… - and it feels very artificial, as if he, or his editor, went through his novel with a meat cleaver, slashing at it every now and again to fashion it into chapters.)
Anyway, Greg Keyes knows how to construct his story beats in a way that feels natural and he also finds believable motivations for having his characters bump into each other. Plot lines intersect in a way that not only expands the mythos and world building but also generates additional drama. I particularly liked the way Cazio and Anne found each other in the same orbit. And it doesn't hurt that Cazio is such a delight. He has more than a bit of Nicomo Cosca about him - the likeable rogue - but can be very funny and charming - two traits that Cosca is too much of a battered, untrustworthy drunk to possess. Cazio still has a profound sense of honour, whereas Cosca would sell the gold from his Granny's teeth to buy another bottle of hooch.
When I began the book I was a bit worried that Neil MeqVren was going to provide yet another example of that hoary, old chestnut the naive farm boy who grows up to do great things. And while, spiritually, he does have some of that about him - he is inexperienced in matters of the heart and the political exigencies of the court, and his honour is as thick as a whale omelette - but he can be a right bastard with a sword, which is both refreshing and endearing to me, and he is starting to develop in interesting ways. Anne Dare, also, is on a path that requires her to dig deep into her reserves of will and strength, and I hope that book two or three finds her slicing and dicing her enemies, standing knee deep in the dead. She had to cut her studies of assassination a bit short, so I worry about how she's going to learn to do what is required of her. Perhaps just some good old fashioned practice will provide all she needs to to know. I'm also very fond of Muriele, the Queen - she has a backbone, is whip smart and also a realist - and while I hope she lives a long and happy life and retires to an orange grove, I think she may be headed for the bonfire of history.
There was some vague, smoke-and-mirror-type stuff that happened with Aspar - why wasn't he killed by the big ugly? And apart from the Briar King, and his environmentalist message (it looks like he's awake and grouchy 'cos people haven't been taking care of the natural world), I am still unclear on who the Human enemy is in the plot. Some people have been aiding the evil that is growing, and there are murmurs of a war brewing and an attempt to seize a crown, but I still can't tell who's doing what. Mostly though, things didn't turn out the way I was expecting. Keyes sets up genre conventions and then knocks them down quite effectively, which keeps things fresh. I'm still waiting for someone I really care about to die, but I'm connected to these people and the plights they find themselves in. I began the sequel, The Charnel Prince, right away and am anxious to see where I am led. In fact, I was so impressed by this book that I immediately ordered the novel Greg Keyes wrote which takes place in the Oblivion universe. I'm an huge Elder Scrolls fan but tie-in books are often such a let down that I avoided this one. I'll report back when I've dipped into it.
Have I missed anything? Well, there's no magic…yet. Which is okay; I don't need magic to have good time. There is definitely an afterlife. There's an ancient Being that lives in is imprisoned in the basement, and is guarded by a ghost. And whomever is sitting on the Throne may go down and ask the ancient Being for their horoscope. The Being is quite grumpy and obtuse and never has good news to share. Also some of the spirits of dead people seem to be able to communicate with the living (although when it's inconvenient for the plot the dead are puzzlingly silent [Hello? WIlliam of Crotheny? How did you die? Operator, we've been cut off!], so perhaps only the ones that get a real burial are on speed dial.) Oh, and there may be some undead. I have a good feeling about the King's brother and how exactly he managed to survive a mortal wound. Hopefully he'll spend his time in book two deliquescing and waving a sword around threateningly. I do love it when the dead come on all martial. Hey, what are the odds that he is the famed Charnel Prince?