Much of fantasy, especially Epic Fantasy, has some basis or inspiration in real world events and history.  In Greg Keyes’s Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, he uses the lost colony of Roanoke as the launch point for this four book series. This isn’t Keyes’s first foray into the genre, but it is perhaps his most ambitions.  Under the name J. Gregory Keyes, he published the two-book Chosen of the Changeling saga and the alternate history/fantasy quartet The Age of Unreason.

Cover art by Stephen Youll

Keyes wastes no time pulling the reader into this saga with The Briar King; the novel begins on a crackling storm of battlefield after the requisite prologue. Keyes does not relent in the pacing of the plot and the visual descriptions proliferating throughout the epic. As this prelude initially sets up the events and world of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, we soon learn that the people in this world are originally from our world. As battle and prelude end, the prologue brings us to the “current” time of Everon, focusing on the young princess of Crotheny, Anne who unwittingly unlocks a “something” that has rested for countless years.

Within the first few chapters of The Briar King, Keyes lays out the main players of this volume, The Holter, Aspar White (the equivalent of a Ranger or Royal Woodsman); The Squire, Neil MeqVren; The Novice, Stephen Darige; The Princess, the aforementioned Anne; and The King, William; as well as two staple locales of Fantasy literature; a tavern and a mountain. While the characters are definitely archetypes of Fantasy literature, Keyes introduces them with a vitality and life that made them seem fresh and new. Keyes not so much deconstructs them but rather re-imagines them with care and a sense of vitality and life that set them apart from their archetypes. While the cast is large, the personalities of the cast do not suffer. Even the minor characters and supporting players have a sense of genuine life about them. One character that impressed me was Festia, Princess Anne’s older sister. For the most part, Festia acts as Anne’s guardian, she basically makes sure that Anne is behaving and not embarrassing herself or the royal family. While her character is an important one, the character is not as major a player as either Aspar White or Stephen Darige. These great characters truly support the theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However, the occasions when her character was part of the story, she was remarkably alive and elicited much more substantial depth than a “typical doting older sister.” This is only one example of the many little things that place Keyes’ writing and this novel head and shoulders above the other Big Fat Fantasies on the market.

While the frame of the plot is rather familiar in the fantasy genre; Keyes tells the story in way that is consistently refreshing and engaging. The basic plot is that of a royal family and nation at a point in time of epic transition, this signified by a harbinger of doom out of legend. Keyes adds different flavors and unique ingredients to create a freshly imagined story. The titular Briar King is whispered about and hinted as said legendary harbinger of war and doom, also evoking the familiar myth of the Green Man as well as superficial and surface resemblances to Tolkien’s Ents. The Briar King is so ensorcelled in legend, some characters, particularly Aspar, have difficulty believing in him. Aspar White’s job as Holter is to guard the King’s wood against any intruders to Crotheny. Through him, we see the first hints of the Briar King coming to life.

Cover art by Stephen Youll

As things were turning for the worse from in the opening novel, and even more so in The Charnel Prince, the disorientation the characters feel as weird and strange creatures appear comes across that much more convincing and plausible. Monsters are roaming the land, humans are acting bizarrely, and villages are simply empty, the characters, and the readers through their eyes, feel the fright, the bafflement, and uncertainty of what is going on in the world.

While many of the characters (the chivalrous Neil MeqVren, the Holster Aspar White, princess Anne, the swashbuckling Cazio, the strong-willed Winna, the young, bright acolyte Stephen) are still as central as they were in the previous novel, Keyes introduces another very pivotal character in the composer Levigild (Leoff) Ackenzal. This viewpoint character serves to give the reader an excellent sense of the chaos swirling around the castle in Eslen. Like many of the characters Keyes introduced, Leoff is quite headstrong and confident. Initially hired by the William to compose music for the nobles, Leoff’s status is immediately in question upon his arrival to the castle. As he did in the previous novel in the saga, Keyes deftly tells the story and unfolding chaos occurring in the castle through the eyes of his characters, in this case Leoff. His sense of confusion and displacement effectively puts the reader in the middle of the events.

Another aspect of The Charnel Prince that succeeded was how the story continued so well from the previous volume, more as another chapter in a grand tale, rather than simply a middle-book in a series of books. Some of the hints of the greater history of Crotheny and the world at large planted in the previous novel are fleshed out in a bit more detail here, enriching the reading experience, giving the reader a greater sense of reality of the world between the pages. The characters in this saga are growing as fully realized people through the events they experience.

Cover art by Stephen Youll

In the third novel, The Blood Knight, Princess Anne Dare is still on the run while her mother, Muriele, is held captive by Robert, the undead brother of the late Emperor William. Robert, of course killed his brother, sits on the throne in Eslen is holding Leoff, the musician/composer introduced in The Charnel Prince captive.  Meanwhile, Steven Darige, Aspar White and Winna are in the King’s Forest attempting to get the heart of the magical mysteries.

More and more authors are blurring the lines between “good” and “evil,” allowing their characters to wallow in a shade of grey.  In turn, this provides a deeper reading experience, making the story more of a participatory experience where the author doesn’t dictate what readers should absorb.  Rather, they offer up the story and allow their readers to decide for themselves.  With these books, Greg Keyes is doing just that.

Perhaps the only concrete thing dictated in The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is how devastating it is to the world to break the law of death.  This broken law is how the characters came to this point in their journeys.  This is why the Briar King is walking in the world, monstrous Gryffens are born into the world on a regular basis, and men ride gigantic, poison-spewing worms through the King’s Forest. Even the Briar King, thought to be an enemy, or “evil” in the first installment, and less so in the second, turns out to be even less so here.

As I’ve hinted, all of the major characters in this saga; received nearly equal “screen” or “page” time in The Blood Knight.  Cazio the dashing swordsman continues to protect Anne and romantically connect with Austra, Anne’s friend and maid.  Sir Neil MeqVren, battles on with his sword alongside Cazio, and often verbally against Cazio.  By the end of The Briar King and The Charnel Prince, the titular characters were easy to pinpoint and determine.  As a character, the Blood Knight is more of a mystery, hints are dropped along the way, giving him an air of ambiguity.  Again, a prophecy is involved, but the clarity of this prophecy is held in doubt through much of the novel.

Cover art by Stephen Youll

In the concluding volume, The Born Queen, Anne Dare takes that role of the Born Queen.  It is a stirring turn of character in the sense that she matures, grows into, and accepts a role she didn’t want, while also maintaining a semblance of who she was prior to this turn. The fate of the world rests on Anne’s shoulders, and as the world begins to stress, so does Anne.  Keyes played out her scenes very logically and believably, in terms of the mental arguments and platitudes one tells one (or might tell) oneself as they are ushering in the end of the world.

The primary action story begun in The Briar King took place in Eslen, so does the conclusion of The Born Queen, and the entire series itself.  The climax was incredibly paced and wrought, proving difficult to really stop reading. I found it to be breathtaking and one of the more expertly crafted and executed series culminations.  A welcome epilogue brought full closure to the story of these characters, and ultimately a fitting wrapping up of all loose ends. I’ve been following the series even before The Briar King was published and there are few writers who have left me so completely satisfied with what they’ve done.  Greg Keyes is one of them.

In The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone Greg Keyes has created one of the more fully realized worlds in fantasy. As the story unfolds, he paints a vivid, richly colored picture of the world of Everon and the nation of Crotheny. The world is revealed through the eyes and interactions of the characters rather than described in cumbersome info-dumps as is the case with a number of other authors. This revelation works very well as the world comes through emotionally and realistically through each character. Essentially, if the characters of the world don’t “believe” in the world, how can the readers? We believe the characters, so the world must be real. This also works in favor of the characters, painting rich voices for each of the characters. Each character is a unique voice and point of view in the world.

In recent years, Mr. Keyes has turned his pen to video-game adaptations and some short stories.  I thought he did a great job in creating this world and populating it with fully fleshed out characters. I’d love to see more from him on this scale, but for now, The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone remains a special Epic Fantasy saga on my shelves and recommended it very highly.

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