The Briar King, Part I
[Spoilsport: This post contains mild spoilers for The Briar King, by Greg Keyes. Oh, and The Lord of the RIngs, too, I guess.]
"God, sometimes you just don't come through. Do you need a woman to look after you?" - Tori Amos
I'm always terrified when cracking open a new fantasy novel. I want to be transported. I want there to be swords and stone and a sizzling castle siege conducted with lightning under black skies. I want there to be people I care about and betrayal and drama played out across rolling, green dales. I want crypts and rain and interesting geography and, if you can fit them in, some undead. I want all that, and more, but mostly I want the author to like and respect women. There's little in literature more disappointing to me than discovering an author who has a great sense of pacing and world building; who writes characters with wit and gravitas, but who doesn't care about women. If that's not in place I have to set the book aside, because that's not a world I want to read about and spend time in.
This genre, historically, has not been a fan of women. Perhaps the most famous of all fantasy series' - The Lord of the Rings - has little to no use for them. They are either serving wenches, like Rosie Cotton (whom Samwise rescues from her life of drudgery by marrying and getting her pregnant O.o) or they are untouchable, perfect beings, like Galadriel. And really that's the same thing: a cipher that the author has no idea about or interest in filling up with life and agency. (On one level, it could be argued that the entire arc of LOTR is an attempt to get back to a more pastoral, blissful time in a young boys life; a time of scrumping and bunking off school; a time of paper boat races along the banks of the Wye; a time before vaginas. Or perhaps it was just that Tolkien was so mortified by World War II that he escaped into Middle Earth and wished away the world. Both of those things can be true.)
So anyway, female characters in fantasy have frequently been just that: fantasy. Props, with no more animus than a shield or a shovel. Princesses that need rescuing, frail and sickly daughters that are not fit to inherit the kingdom from their Father, painted trollops that wink slyly and give the thickly muscled hero a freebie 'cos he just slew a cadre of Ettins, or wives, sisters and daughters of the recently conquered enemy waiting to be subjugated and raped. Female characters were trusted to carry six pints of ale, or a basket of freshly shorn wool. And if they were to be charged with something as heavy and unwieldy as a plot point, then they were evil and villainous. Witches that spread fear and corruption. Duplicitous spinsters ('cos there's nothing more likely to turn a woman to evil as getting old and not having a man) who scheme on the margins of the court to bring down its most popular and shining members. Basically, women were empty vessels intended to receive a man's semen or absorb his scorn. Occasionally at the same time.
What joy then, what relief, to find authors who are interested in investing their female characters with a full range of human expression. Writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Steven Erikson, Mary Gentle, Joe Abercrombie, Iain M. Banks, Karen Miller, and Scott Lynch, to name a few. And now, I think I'm ready to add Greg Keyes' name to that list. I'm halfway through The Briar KIng, the first book in his 'Kingdom of Thorn and Bone' series and it's a delight.
~ Quite early in the book, a religious leader returns to town to discover that, in his absence, the King has passed a resolution decreeing that his daughters will be eligible to inherit his mantle. Yay emancipation!
~ We meet Erren, bodyguard to the Queen and member of a group of female assassins, trained by the Church. Oh my.
(Mea Culpa: I have a thing for assassins. A thing which, at times, may veer crazily across the border into Fetish Land, where I keep a summer home. While my natural character is that of a rogue - Sula would say a bard is more accurate - I'm really in love with the rogue's taciturn and thorny cousin: the assassin. Both are skilled in stealth, both are lithe and acrobatic, and most importantly, both wear a dark cloak with a hood. And while Kalam, from The Malazan Book of the Fallen, can get me all kinds of excited about taking out seven men by himself, it is female assassins, like Apsalar, the Shadowdancer (also from MBOTF) who really make my socks roll up and down. There's a lovely moment in The Bonehunters when Aspalar is in a tavern and one of the servers tells her those men over there have noticed how lightly she moves and they want her to dance for them. Aspalar, without menace, with sadness really, replies: "They don't want me to dance for them".
Were my heart blacker, were it grown over and calloused from lack of use, I would play the assassin more often than I do. Alas, while I am happy to steal into Bafford Manor and relieve the Lord of his fabulous jewelled sceptre, I'm unlikely to leave a trail of bodies behind me.)
~And, one of the Royal daughters, Anne, is quite headstrong and independent, giving her chaperone the slip and refusing to ride her horse side saddle, and just lately has been told she's to attend the same coven that trained Erren.
I was overjoyed when it became clear Anne is going to be an assassin, and not married off to some foreign Prince to support the long-term strategic and diplomatic goals of the Kingdom. Hopefully, Anne will become a central player in the sequels.
The characters are all warmly drawn and the plot is deftly handled - an ancient evil, the titular Briar King, is waking and terror and fear stalk the land like two great stalky things. Story beats have been well motivated (apart from a weird moment when two characters spontaneously decide to have sex up on the ledge above a valley, while being pursued by enemies) and I'm growing particularly fond of the young monk Stephen Darige (rhymes with carriage) and his journey. In his studiousness, he reminds me a bit of Malacus Quai from The First Law Trilogy, except Stephen is less dour and sulky. Although I do worry that, by joining the monastery, Steven has fallen in with a bad lot. I'm beginning to doubt the intentions of the wise and benevolent Fratrex, who leads the monks. Something about him is just a bit off. Maybe he needs a woman?
To stab him through the kidneys.