Once again, Greg Keyes transports the reader to the amazing Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, the world he introduced in The Briar King. The events of this new novel in the saga, The Charnel Prince, pick up immediately from that previous novel. The kingdom of Crotheny is in a quagmire, as the royal family is not what it was when The Briar King began. The cast of characters Keyes so wonderfully introduced is fleshed out even further, as is the world in which they live. The Briar King himself appears as well, though his motivations become even murkier as his presence becomes more real.
One thing Keyes has been able to do very successfully is ground his world in plausibility, in The Briar King, he so effectively introduced the world though the eyes of his characters, it was entirely convincing. As things were turning for the worse from that 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 Emperor 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, so smoothly, 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. Of course some of these characters, being rather young, such as the Princess Anne, the swordsman Cazio, and Stephen Darige, the one time monk, should grow as characters. But watching them grow and evolve is one of the delights of reading the novel and one of the many strengths of Keyes’ writing. Keyes again balances the backdrop of world-shattering, Epic events with the completely alive and real people who are affected by these events.
There are action, combat and fight scenes aplenty in this novel, and again, Keyes weaves these scenes into the story effortlessly, infusing each of these types of scenes with tension and adrenaline on level with those expectant of the most charged blockbuster film. From the sword fights in which Cazio engages a single enemy to the larger-scale combat scenes later in the novel, each of these scenes is charged with intensity. To be fair; however, every scene, whether fight, conversation, or single character sitting in deep thought and consternation, Greg Keyes presents the intensity of this world and these characters with the deft skill of a master artist. His early work showed it, The Briar King was further evidence, and The Charnel Prince is the most current and perhaps best evidence that Greg Keyes is a true Master of Epic Storytelling. He balances nearly every single aspect of this novel in a seemingly effortless fashion, presenting another chapter in one of the Great Epic multi-volume sagas the genre has yet to see print. Should Keyes continue to tell this tale at this incredible level of skill and wonderment, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone will stand as the defining Epic Fantasy of its time.
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2004 Rob Bedford