The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone

The Briar King, by Greg Keyes

briarkingEveron was an age of human beings in all their glories and failings.  The children of the rebellion multiplied and covered the land with their kingdoms.
In the year 2,223 E. the age of Everon came to an abrupt and terrible end.
-The Codex Tereminnam, Author Anon.

Over two thousand years ago, humanity did not control its own fate.  Mankind was only a slave race, taken from far-off lands by the Skasloi, beings of exceptional cruelty.  At about that time, though, humanity decided to do something about it-and overcame their former masters.  But as the last Skasloi lord fell, he declared a curse on humanity, telling the victors that even as they believed themselves free, they had only exchanged masters.

And now, it seems that the promised end for humanity is nigh.  Man has (unsurprisingly) separated into various kingdoms; while they work against each other in the usual sort of intrigues, something terribly ancient is awakening, and a creature of legend has already begun to walk the forests.  This is the setting of The Briar King, the first book in The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone.

The books opens slowly, with a two prelude and prologue to set the stage and setting; once past that, we meet our main characters, a chapter at a time.  For example, the squire Neil MeqVren, preparing to enter the service of the kingdom of Crotheny, and the man who has raised him fully expects that Neil will be made a knight in the near future.  This, in turn, gets him involved with the intrigues of the royal family-which includes King William II, his brother and close advisor, Robert; the Queen, Muriele, and her three daughters, Fastia, Lesbeth, and the youngest-Anne, who is doing her best to avoid being the prim and proper daughter a King or Queen might hope for.  However, there are forces at work that are planning to undermine the kingdom-for ambition, and for darker reasons.

And speaking of darker reasons-in another part of the kingdom, in the King’s Forest, the king’s forester, Aspar White, becomes aware of a presence in the forest-a creature that is driving out all that reside there (many of whom shouldn’t be there in the first place) or are passing through, such the Sefry, not-quite-human beings who remind me a lot of gypsies in attitude.  The Sefry inform White that the Briar King is awakening, a being older even than the Skasloi-and his awakening would signal bad things.  And Aspar finds himself chasing a creature out of legend, a legend that he doesn’t even really believe in.  On the way, he meets up with the priest Stephen Darige, on his way to the monastery at d’Ef-which has some pretty serious hazing going on; Darige quickly becomes exposed to some darker truths as well.

Need it be said that the two plots are destined to come together?

I have to admit, I might not have picked this book up under ordinary circumstances; however, a co-worker had mentioned the book to me, and I’d read a couple sample chapters on the Web, so I figured I’d see what it was like.  There are some similarities to another book series, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but only superficially-while both stories cover kingdoms in turmoil that have some outside danger about to hit, the substance of The Briar King stands alone.  For starters, it doesn’t have quite the same cast of thousands that Martin’s book has.  That allows the plots and subplots to be a bit more tightly focused.  There’s a number of minor characters who also gain in prominence as the book goes along; Stephen was someone I’d expected to only be a minor character, but his part expanded unexpectedly on me (I shouldn’t have been surprised, if I’d actually read the inside cover flap); and the character of Cazio who shows up later is a fellow who strikes me as trying to be a charming rogue (and needing work!)-he’s a rather fun character so far, and I hope to see more of him in the next book.

Another aspect that I liked was the mix between the political intrigues of Crotheny (and the mess that results), and the hunt that leads Aspar to secrets he’d probably be happier not to find.  I feel that it’s about the right balance.  In addition, I had to admit a bit of admiration for the character of Anne, who does her level best to only obey the letter of the law as far as her parents are concerned, and seeing her develop into…well, someone slightly less spoiled.  And while there are some who might disagree with me, I rather liked Neil; there’s something about a fellow of common birth rising to prominence that always makes for good reading.

I expect that readers of Martin will also find a great deal to like about Keyes; while The Briar King is definitely a fantasy novel, the concepts of magic are fairly low key at best, and while it doesn’t follow a quest-like storyline like some other fantasy novels, it does tell a compelling story of a kingdom about to find itself with more problems than it can handle (perhaps); and it succeeds in guaranteeing that I’ll be looking at the next book when it is released.  For folks who aren’t into the usual fantasy books with elves and wizards, and more interested in a “realistic” fantasy (now there’s an odd thing to say), I’d highly recommend this book.  And if you are-well, try this book, anyway.  It’s a solid read.

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