Ossus Library Index Fantasy Index

THE BRIAR KING

A novel by Greg Keyes (2003, Del Rey)
Book 1 in the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone trilogy

A plot to destroy a kingdom begins the process of awakening the Briar King, and perhaps the end of humanity.

 

 

Read August 28th to September 6th, 2005  
    A very good book, which is written in a way that makes it feel epic, yet for all the character work, there is very little growth.

My main complaint about this book is that the characters are simply shoved in the direction that the events in the plot wish them to go. Even the people who would normally make their own way in the world, like Aspar White, are simply driven by the plot, wherever they are to go. Most of the characters felt like that; they were simply there to people the world, not to affect it. The people who make history happen were mostly absent.

There were some exceptions, of course. Stephen has at least learned to be less naive. When Aspar rescued him from the bandits in the woods, he was ready to believe anything, even if it wasn't sanctioned by the church. At least by walking the faneway he gained some sense of how the real world acts. Unfortunately, he doesn't end up any smarter by the end of the book. Cazio has learned that he is not actually invincible. Going up against the knights in armor showed him that what his instructor said was true: you couldn't get a blade past that armor! I am not certain that Neil learned anything through the course of the book, except that being a knight is more complicated than he thought it was going to be.

Anne was the biggest disappointment in this book. She was carefree, and although completely lovable, didn't think the rules applied to her, especially the rules of court. When her mother sent her to the coven, and she kept acting like a spoiled brat -all haughty because she was a princess, I thought she would learn some hard lessons. I figured she would at least learn how to rule. Unfortunately, when she was sent into the pit for bad behavior, she managed to find a way out, and thus learned nothing. Apparently she learned some magic at the coven, but even she doesn't know how she managed it. It becomes less satisfying for the reader. Presumably some of these things will be fixed in the second or third books, but they are frustrating at the moment.

However, the book is still quite enjoyable. It is interesting that while none of the characters know what is going on at the beginning of the book, they are just as clueless at the end! I don't remember reading a book like that before. I also thought, at one point, that nearly every single main character would end up dead by the end. That would have been different, but it didn't happen. A huge number of supporting characters also end up dead.

The characters can almost be introduced independently of the plot, because of the way the book flows. Actually, the characters can be described by their plots, which are mostly separate.

Aspar White is a ranger of the King's Forest. He and the woman he eventually falls in love with, Winna, chase a greffyn (previously thought to be mythical) around the forest. The greffyn kills everything it touches, and sickens every living thing that keeps its gaze, except for Stephen. Through their travels, we learn a lot about the world as it is, and about another race called the Sefry, who abhor sunlight. Eventually they find the Briar King, which drives Aspar mad for a few days.

Stephen is a priest who understands language and knowledge. He helps Aspar out of his madness, and learns that another priest, who was given to tormenting the others in the monastery, is in league with the greffyn. Together, they save the Queen's life by stopping a body-snatching ritual, which would have taken over the Queen's main bodyguard. He seems to be unaware of the prophecy that states that a Queen must sit on the throne when the Briar King arrives, though there is no explanation as to why that is necessary. Indeed, the Briar King leaves the Queen untouched when he arrives, and saves Aspar from the poison of the greffyn.

King William rules the empire of Crotheny, with the help from his duplicitous brother, Robert. It was clear from early on that Robert was trying to usurp the throne by giving the King false information, but it was sickening to see how far he would go, killing his twin sister and using her as an example to start a war. I wonder, though, if William was thrown from a cliff into the sea, how did anybody see that he was pierced with Lierish arrows? I believe it is Robert who, when we thought he was dead, actually survived in the last pages of the book.

Anne is princess to the throne, but being the youngest, has no aspirations of anything from the court. But she doesn't understand the privilege of her position in the world. She is forced to separate from her first love, Roderick, and sent to a coven in order to learn the art of assassination. Unfortunately, we don't know what she learned, because it seems that this is merely a device to get Anne away from the rest of the royal family. I really thought that her handmaiden, Austra, would be better suited to the tasks, but she apparently wasn't even permitted to learn anything at all!

When the men who are trying to gain immortality from the Briar King (as I understand it) storm the coven and kill all the sisters, Anne and Austra are helped out by Cazio, whom I was sure was to be Anne's next love interest. Although she denies it, she is rather infatuated with Cazio. That makes her fall for every man (both of them) who courts her. I liked Cazio a lot, especially his lack of humility, which made him a very funny character. He is good at sword fighting, the honorable kind, not broadswords, and he knows it.

Neil MeqVren seems to be the only person in these lands who knows the meaning of honor and virtue. After saving the Queen, he becomes her personal bodyguard. He holds duty above all else, which makes for a disappointing love story between him and the already-married princess Fastia. Although his sections were short, especially at the beginning of the book, I think they were my favorites. When the men and greffyn come to kill the Queen and her family, Neil puts up a heroic fight, and goes into some sort of magical rage to save his charge, even though Fastia and princess Elseny are killed.

The lands are described, in look and culture, like Europe. Crotheny is probably England, with the Lierish islands as France or Scotland, where MeqVren is from, for example. Vitellio is obviously Italy, with its vineyards, fencing, and swaggering lovers.

I don't pretend to understand what is going on in the big picture, but it was an interesting read, nonetheless. Some characters seem to know what is about to happen, but we are not privy to their thoughts. Clearly some of the sisters at the coven understood why Anne had to survive, yet nobody told the royal family about it, or about why it was happening. The future of humanity seems to be hanging on the likelihood of a Queen sitting on the throne of Crotheny. As the book closes, the mentally-challenged son of the King, Charles, is now Emperor. His mother rules from behind him, but that can't last long, especially if Robert is alive.

The end of humanity seems to be the result of a Queen using forbidden magic to end the enslavement of the race at the hands of the Skasloi, which was wiped out in the process, except for one, which lives at the time of this book, 2000 years later. There is a price to pay for that magic, apparently, and the time is due to pay it.

Being written in an epic fashion like it is, it made it more difficult to read until I got used to the style. It took me a long time to get into the story because of that. However, I think it is worth the read, as the story itself is interesting, even if the characters simply go with the flow of the plot, rarely affecting it. I hope we get some of this cleared up in the rest of the trilogy. One of the things that I did like about the writing is the way the readers were not given any special information about the culture. We had to learn was a faneway was on our own, as references were made to it. There were many unfamiliar words, which were never explicitly defined, but could be reasoned out by their use. I like that kind of storytelling, though the writing could have been easier.

 
   

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