by Greg Keyes
Del Rey Hardcover: ISBN 0345440668 PubDate Jan 03
Review by EJ McClure
560 pages List price $24.95
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Having just finished The Briar King in one gulp, I can say with absolute assurance that the blurbs on the book jacket don’t do justice to this splendid fantasy novel. Like Keyes’ earlier works, The Blackgod/Waterborn and the Age of Unreason tetrology, The Briar King is a heady blend of legend and history, spiced up with great action, a poignant love story and a tart twist of humor.
But it is not an easy book to review; Keyes has knotted together so many story lines in this first book of the Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone series that it is difficult to decide where to start.
Meet Aspar White, an unlikely hero. A solitary man, gruff and self-reliant, Aspar takes a possessive interest in the woodland he patrols in his duties as a royal holter. He cannot ignore the smell of murder, or the rumor of slaughter; if there is evil afoot, he must seek it out, and put an end to it. It’s his job. When an old woman of the Sefry warns him that the Briar King is awakening, Aspar dismisses it as mere ‘sceat.’ Aspar has no use for Sefry nonsense or superstition. When he comes across three outlaws contemplating the theft of his horses, he swiftly dispatches justice, and then, almost as an afterthought, rescues their captive, a scholarly young man headed for the priesthood. It’s his job, after all.
Stephen is unimpressed by his rescuer, and amuses himself along the road by composing a treatise on the “Quaint and Vulgar Behaviors of the Common Holter-Beast.” He is relieved to part company with Aspar and delighted by the well-stocked scriftorium he finds at the abbey. As reward for his skill in translating ancient manuscripts, he is chosen to walk the faneway of the saints at a younger age than any other novice. What awaits him at the end of that journey is a peril he never imagined, despite the dark hints in the cursed texts he deciphered.
Adding another thread in this tapestry is Anne, a headstrong and impatient daughter of the house of Dare. Austra is her devoted follower, loyally sharing her mistresses’ dangers (mostly of Anne’s own making) and hardships (mostly punishments for Anne’s disobedience). Late-nights trysts with an unsuitable paramour bring down parental wrath, and earn Anne exile to the distant coven of Saint Cer with only the faithful Austra to keep her company. What seems at first an unbearable punishment soon becomes mortal peril the two girls must face armed only with their friendship, wits . . . and a couple of unexpected talents Anne seems to have inherited from her legendary ancestor, Virgenya Dare.
And then there is Neil MeqVren, who many judge unfit to take the rose of knighthood because of his humble birth. But his prowess in arms earned him the king’s favor, and the rank of Captain of the Queen’s guard. And the attention of the Queen’s daughter Fastia.
Normally, I don’t like to skip between so many points of view, but Keyes layers this marvelous plot together so deftly that the transitions are seamless. All the narrative characters are engaging. I admired Stephen’s integrity, even when I was put off by his chattering arrogance. I respected Aspar’s gruff determination to be independent. Unlikely comrades, those two.
Anne’s regal refusal to heed any will but her own was . . . well, just what you’d expect from the spoiled daughter of a powerful king. I liked them all. All in their blindness to the clues warning them of the gathering storm of power about to smash their comfortable little worlds to jagged splinters. For the Briar King is indeed stirring. Legend has it that he was once a prince among the old gods, the only one to survive the death of them all. Cursed to live on alone, he yearns only to die, but it is said that his death will mean the destruction of the world. Long ago he was bound to enchanted sleep, but every so often, he wakes. Death and rebirth, the turning of the wheel, the burning of the wicker man, the coming of the horned king: Keyes' writing springs from the very tap root of our most cherished mythology.
The next book in the series, The Charnel Prince, is due out in March of 2004. Once you finish The Briar King, I think you’ll agree with me: a year is too long to wait.