The Born Queen

[SPOILSPORT: This post contains spoilers for The Born Queen by Greg Keyes.]

I began the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series infused with such joy and expectation. Book 1 was a genuine surprise and delight. It had some interesting characters, women that weren't doormats, some okay swordplay and a pretty good setup for a main story arc. Plus, it had a coven of highly trained, female assassins; a particular weakness of mine. I eagerly read that book and moved on to Book 2.

I thought the second book held things together well, but some niggling doubts were beginning to creep in. It often felt to me that the characters were going over the same ground, both thematically, within the context of their individual changes, and literally, geographically, treading the same parts of the landscape they'd previously been across.

It was also beginning to worry me that none of the major characters had died. I'm not normally an advocate for knocking off primary characters, but this story was turning out to be so safe, so plain and conservative. The narrative never opened up in a way that was surprising, it never came snapping and crackling off the page, I never felt that any of the major characters were in any real danger of being injured, which meant the story had no elasticity, no tension and release. It was just flat. Plus, it was full of reversals.

The screenwriter, William Goldman (author of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride) has written at length that he thinks he put too many reversals into Butch and Sundance, which had a deleterious effect on the film's forward momentum. And the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series is full of reversals. A character is sent to meet up with a friendly escort and when they arrive it turns out the escort is now their enemy. Another character, who thus far has been a villain, turns out suddenly to be a good guy, after all. The villain, who has been doing dastardly things all along is suddenly revealed to be not so bad at all. The books are packed with these moments. I think the author believed they would create drama but they had the opposite effect: after half a book of this nonsense I stopped trusting anything the writer did. I didn't believe any of the character motivations; I disengaged from the story and all the tension drained out of it. By about a quarter of the way through Book 4 I couldn't wait for it to be over.

Now, I'm not claiming that I want a moral landscape that is clearly black and white. That is the opposite of what interests me; I want to read about characters that are morally complex; I want to read about people who are shaded, capable of showing humanity and compassion as well as cruelty; but that's not what's going on in this series. Greg Keyes isn't being true to the nature of his characters, he's written melodrama, where the action is driven by the plotting and not by the characters internal motivations and consistencies. Instead of making magic, Keyes' has pulled a magic trick and I can see him palming the card.

By the end of Book 4 almost no one is acting according to their nature as established in the previous three books. And with the exception of Cazio (the sole character I continued to adore) and Sir Neil (whose dour dedication to some knightly notion of duty was really getting up my nose) I hated everyone. This is a story that could easily have been contained by one book, maybe two, if the editor wanted to keep in some of the marbling. But by stretching it and staking it out across four books all the flaws in the main arc are exposed. There is no main arc, because it keeps being reversed and refreshing itself. I suppose Anne's journey from Princess to Mage Queen could be a thread that is followed all the way through but the character named Anne at the end of the series is not a person I recognized from the previous three titles. And that's an huge problem. We need a lifeline, we need someone to take us on the journey and it's fine if they change, better if they change, but if they become a completely different person then the things about them that made us trust them and fall in love with them are also gone. By the end, Anne was just a plot device, just like Stephen, and Aspar, and Fend, and The Kept, and The Blood Knight, and even The Briar King himself. All of them cyphers, faint echoes set in motion so they could serve a plot that became meaningless when it stopped being about people I cared for.