There are a lot of fantasy novels out there that are good, there are a smaller amount that are excellent. Only once in a while, once every couple of years, at best, does a writer create a fantasy novel that is Superb, that is Special, that many others, both before it’s coming and after it’s coming will immediately be compared against. With The Briar King, Greg Keyes has done just that. This opening novel in his Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone saga is a novel other novels will be measured against in the years to come. While Keyes is not exactly new to the fantasy genre, having published, as J. Gregory Keyes, the very well-received Age of Unreason saga and his initial duology, The Chosen of the Changeling, as well as great work in the Star Wars universe, The Briar King will likely stand as his crowning achievement. It is everything that High/Epic Fantasy can be, it has all the ingredients that readers are looking for: a richly imagined world, believable characters, and a story that simply works and drives the reader to turn the page unrelentingly.
As the prelude of The Briar King opens, the reader is thrust in the midst of a crackling storm on a field of battle, setting the mood for the entire novel. Keyes does not relent in the pacing of the plot and the visual descriptions that proliferate this most enjoyable, finely written, epic of fantasies. As this prelude initially sets up the events and world of the saga 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. Anne unwittingly unlocks a something that has rested for countless years. The results of her unlocking unfold the fascinating story in a beautifully rendered world by Keyes.
Within the first few chapters, 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 such vitality and life, it is as if you are reading not only about these particular characters, but these types of characters for the first time. 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. This characterization is something that Keyes handles expertly in The Briar King. 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. On the surface Festia simply could have been the typical doting older sister of Princess Anne. While her character is an important one, the character is not as major a player as either Aspar White or Stephen Darige. 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
This saga, The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone, has perhaps one of the most fully realized worlds created in fantasy. As the story unfolds, Greg Keyes 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. This relationship, between character and world is one of the hallmarks of this novel. Whereas other writers can bog the reader down with too much information about the world, taking away from the flow of the story, pace of the plot and importance of the characters, Keyes manages to bring everything together, imbuing both the world and character with genuine depth, yet leaving just enough out of the mix so the reader yearns for more. Seeing the world through the character’s eyes is much like a vividly rendered painting that begs to be reached out and touched to verify that it is only a painting. As you read more of the novel, you realize this is not merely an imagined world, it is alive, it is real and these characters breathe. Keyes revelation of the world is remarkably visceral, the effect leaves you feeling as if you are the third wheel as Aspar and Stephen travel in it, or as a fly on the tree during Neil and Queen Muriele’s discussions.
While the frame of the plot is rather familiar in the fantasy genre; again, Greg Keyes tells the story in way that is consistently refreshing and enchanting. 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. Again, the Briar King as harbinger and character come to life through the vivid description in the eyes of the characters.
Keyes paints a picture suggesting the reality of the world and the characters, leaving just enough to the reader’s imagination so the writer’s words and reader’s imagination work towards a well thought out and expertly revealed world. The fully fleshed-out characters live and breath, they tell us about the world and the other characters in a way that is ultimately convincing. The myths and magics both hinted and carefully revealed imbue the world with enough mystery, enough magic to enliven the reader to beg for more in the next installment, The Charnel Prince. All told, Greg Keyes has given readers and the Fantasy genre a good shot in the arm with this novel. He has boldly cemented his presence in the Fantasy genre with this enjoyable, rewarding, satisfying epic novel that resonates and echoes with the reader long after it has been read. Greg Keyes has brought story, character and imagined world together to form a complete and fully satisfying novel. Do yourself a favor, whether you are convinced by this review or not, buy the book, Greg Keyes will convince you himself.
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2003 Rob Bedford