The Briar King: The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, Book 1 by Grey Keyes
Del Rey, 4th printing, 2004
Genre: Epic fantasy
Jacket Copy: Two thousand years ago, the Born Queen defeated the Skasloi lords, freeing humans from the bitter yoke of slavery. But now monstrous creatures roam the land—and destinies become inextricably entangled in a drama of power and seduction. The king’s woodsman, a rebellious girl, a young priest, a roguish adventurer, and a young man made suddenly into a knight—all face malevolent forces that shake the foundations of the kingdom, even as the Briar King, legendary harbinger of death, awakens from his slumber. At the heart of this many-layered tale is Anne Dare, youngest daughter of the royal family . . . upon whom the fate of her world may depend.
Now, I have something to say, so PAY ATTENTION. If you are a spoiler fanatic, note that the jacket copy on each volume gets progressively more explicit when explaining the story in the volume(s) preceding (though for the most part, it’s vague enough that I wouldn’t be bothered, but then, I love spoilers). This is common sense. Consider yourself warned.
The Charnel Prince: The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, Book 2 by Grey Keyes
Del Rey, 2nd printing, 2004
Genre: Epic fantasy
Jacket copy: When the legendary Briar King awoke from his slumber, a season of darkness and horror fell upon the Kingdom of Crotheny. Now countless breeds of unspeakable monsters roam the countryside. An epidemic of madness has transformed peaceful villagers from the wildlands into savage, flesh-eating fiends. In Eslen, King William has been murdered, Queen Muriele is stalked by treachery on every side, and their last surviving daughter, Anne, has fled the assassins bent on destroying her family.
Close on the heels of the runaway princess, young knight Neil MeqVren, the queen’s one trusted ally, is sworn to rescue Anne from her murderous pursuers. Anne herself undertakes a perilous journey toward the sanctuary of her distant paramour’s arms, but along the way lie the sinister agents and hidden snares of a sprawling conspiracy that few might hope to evade.
At the same time, spies in the service of Praifec Hespero, the powerful Churchman, embark upon a mission to destroy the Briar King in the heart of his domain. And the power-hungry Church, spurred on by the mystical events, has launched an inquisition whose repercussions threaten even the queen. As the noose of intrigue tightens across the land, personal fates and a kingdom’s destiny alike will be decided in a conflict between virtue and malevolence, might and magic.
The Blood Knight: The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, Book 3 by Grey Keyes
Del Rey, 1st edition, 2006
Genre: Epic fantasy
Jacket copy: Brimming with passion and adventure, Greg Keyes’s epic saga of a royal family’s fall from power through treachery and dark magic, set amid the return of ancient evils whose malevolence threatens to annihilate humanity, bids fair to become a classic of its kind. Now, in the eagerly awaited third installment, Keyes draws the threads of his tapestry ever tighter, illuminating old mysteries and introducing new ones as events build toward a shattering climax.
The legendary Briar King has awakened, spreading madness and destruction. Half-remembered, poorly understood prophecies seem to point to the young princess Anne Dare, rightful heir to the throne of Crotheny, as the world’s only hope. Yet Anne is hunted by the minions of the usurper Robert, whose return from the grave has opened a doorway through which sinister sorceries have poured into the world. Though Anne herself is the conduit of fearsome powers beyond her understanding and control, it is time for girl to become woman, princess to become queen. Anne must stop running and instead march at the head of an army to take back her kingdom . . . or die trying.
But a mysterious assassin stalks her, so skilled in the deadly fencing style of dessrata that even Anne’s friend and protector Cazio, a master of the form, cannot stand against him, nor can her sworn defender, the young knight Neil MeqVren.
As for Anne’s other companions–Aspar White, the royal holter who bears an enchanted arrow capable of felling the Briar King; and Stephen Darige, the monk who blew the horn that woke the Briar King from his slumber–they cannot help her, as their separate paths carry them ever deeperinto a deadly maze of myth and magic from which return may be impossible.
Meanwhile, Queen Muriele is a prisoner of the false king. With no allies but a crippled musician, who is himself a prisoner, and a servingwoman who is both more and less than she seems, Muriele will find herself a pawn in Robert’s schemes for conquest–and a weapon to be used against her own daughter.
The Born Queen: The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, Book 4 by Grey Keyes
Del Rey, 1st edition, 2008
Genre: Epic fantasy
Jacket copy: In The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, Greg Keyes has crafted a brilliant saga of magic, adventure, and love set against a backdrop of clashing empires and an ancient, reawakened evil. Now, with The Born Queen, Keyes brings his epic to a masterly close, gathering the strands of plot and character into a stunning climax that both completes and transcends all that has gone before.
The Briar King is dead, and the world itself follows him to ruin. Aspar White, wounded and tired, must embark on one last quest to save the forest and the people he loves, but he has little hope of success.
Anne Dare at last sits on the throne of Crotheny, but for how long? The Church, now led by the corrupt and powerful Marché Hespero, has declared a holy war against her, giving the king of Hansa the pretext he needs to unleash his vast might on the young queen and her unready army.
But Hansa is the least of Anne’s worries. The Hellrune, war seer of Hansa, strikes at her through vision and prophecy. The Kept–last of the elder Skasloi lords–weaves his own dark webs. Anne’s teacher and ally in the sedos world might also be her worst enemy, and Anne’s own mounting strength compels her toward madness.
Surviving these dangers and mastering her eldritch abilities are merely prelude to the real struggle. There are many–some with power matching or even exceeding Anne’s own–who are willing to kill in order to seize control. For whoever sits upon the throne will have the ultimate command to bring about the world’s salvation–or its apocalypse.
Books report: Dude, where was Greg Keyes when I was a wee adolescent and had to suffer through the Time of Piers Anthony? I would have eaten this up like it was Butterfinger ice cream, and gone right back for more. Do you remember what it was like back then, in the early nineties? It was a time when Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, and Piers Anthony ruled the world, and A Song of Ice and Fire was still in the works and the Wheel of Time just beginning to turn …
And in my ever ongoing search for more fantasy epics, I had to read a great deal of sub-par fantasy to get my fix, particularly the Great Panty Pervert, Mr PA himself. (I am very bitter about this. I know there will be some who think I’m mental, but really, you don’t KNOW how warping an experience it was. Or how DOMINATED the genre was.) Don’t get me wrong, though, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone aren’t aimed particularly at younger readers, nor are they too simplistic for a mature audience, it’s just that that was a time in my life when I was developing into an adult reader and really looking to expand my horizons, and I would have enjoyed the hell out of this series–not to mention had more strong female characters to reflect on.
I haven’t read any of Keyes’ other work, though I’ve heard a number of recommendations for The Age of Unreason (and will undoubtedly be reading that soon), so I can’t yet judge him overall, not after a mere four novels, but I will say he is worth investigating, and definitely an author to watch. The series was both entertaining and rewarding, and (other than a slight slump in The Blood Knight) a tremendously fast read; it was hard for me to go to bed on time because I’d just keep reading and reading (Keyes also heavily relies on cliffhangers to end chapters, and device that keeps the story hurtling along). Though the characters are largely based on recognizable fantasy tropes, they are an individualistic and lively lot, each with a distinctive and complex personality.
In part because of the way some of those characters mutate from heroes to villains and vice versa, there are invariable comparisons to Robert Jordan and especially George RR Martin, and they invariably have TKoTaB falling short of those series’ legendary marks. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good, and a hell of a lot of fun. (And let’s face it: RJ, though a consummate worldbuilder, wasn’t much of a craftsman when it came down to actually like, WRITING.) I especially dug the conceit of having humanity in TKoTaB be the descendants of people spirited away from various places in our history, notably Roanoke.
The series makes for great summer reading, when pesky school or work is less in the way of enjoyment, lying in the sun sipping sweet tea with a good book. Caveat: Keyes still has some growing to do, as evidenced by occasionally laughably clumsy prose, and I personally can’t deal with too much silly Con-Lang tripe, and TKoTaB is rife with Con-Lang. Rife! Oh, and Austra sucks. All she does is mewl and whine until she’s needed to tie up some loose ends.
Read also: A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly
Covers: Fantasy bad, but for fantasy, not terrible at all. Why does fantasy as a genre typically have such terrible cover art? Why do they always go for the literal representation, when it’s so often, well, silly? I always liked those vaguely Art Deco Lackey covers.
March – May