The Briar King by Greg Keyes
The Briar King by Greg Keyes
Del Rey, 2003, ISBN 0-345-44066-8
I love fantasy books, especially epic fantasy. I truly enjoy imaginative histories that may mirror aspects of our own, but mete out stories with characters and creatures that never trod our mundane earth. So it was with a sense of cautious anticipation that I cracked open a book that I’m very surprised I’d never heard of: Greg Keyes’ The Briar King, the first book of his “The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone” series.
It wasn’t long before I was caught up in Keyes’ tale. The opening prelude established the world with an absolutely captivating account of the final battle before the defeat of the evil Skasloi Lords, who enslaved an entire population until a popular uprising toppled them. Led by a mysterious (and intriguing) Born Queen, the final rampart falls – yet dire predictions of a rotten and festering future are levied against the conquering remnants of the gutted but determined army. Keyes sets this stage with an absolutely incredible ability to explicate through a keen and richly indigent dialog. I was instantly enthralled.
The following prologue had an entirely different but just as effective tone. Taking place thousands of years later, the reader peers in at the imaginative play of two young girls – one an Everon noble and the other her servant/friend – who stumble upon an ancient and secret tomb. This more innocent setting again gives us insight into the world we will inhabit for the rest of the book through seamless interplay of the girls’ interpretation and response to their find.
When the bulk of the book begins, we again jump into the future; this time only 8 years into the future, but to the year that we have been warned is the year that “the age of Everon came to an abrupt and terrible end.” It is here that we are introduced to the holter Aspar White.
A holter is a type of ranger: a solitary figure who patrols the king’s forests. And Aspar White fits the part: a middle-aged, grizzled veteran of the wilds, who can smell murder and whose skills are honed from years in the saddle, in the wilderness, enforcing a strict code of evenhanded justice. Aspar, who we quickly learn was raised by the gypsy-like Sefry and has suffered great loss, is a noble character but gritty and rough, just like the terrain he traverses and the villages through which he travels. The dialog that surrounds him is familiar and yet rustic with an indigenous lilt that effortlessly sets the stage more effectively than would pages of detailed description.
We quickly learn that something is very wrong in the forests of Crotheny (the largest kingdom in Everon). Murders are occurring, whole families and communities are foully overrun and violated, and survivors are infected with some kind of killing bloat if they even so much as touch one of the dead. Rumors are surfacing of ancient evils. And perhaps most ominous of all, the Sefry are leaving the forests for the first time in memory. The Briar King, an old one of legend, is awakening, they whisper, and the world is doomed to disease and rot. Aspar dismisses this as gypsy story, but he cannot shake the feeling that something is very, very wrong.
Would that we are able to follow this story line unbroken! However, Keyes the author breaks us away from Aspar and in the following chapters, introduces us to other characters and alternating story lines which are, initially, very separate and different. We meet a young squire, destined to become a knight in the service of the Queen of Crotheny. We also meet a bookish monk, saved from thugs by Aspar as he travels to the monastery of d’Ef to become a novice at the scriptorium there. We become reacquainted with the two girls of the prologue, learning that one is a princess of the realm and are introduced to the royal family and their intrigues, both political and personal. As these different story lines begin to intersect then pull apart again, the fantasy world we entered suddenly becomes very large, and continues to grow as the book progresses.
Maybe it’s that Keyes set the barre so high with Apsar White, but some of the other story lines just didn’t hit it off with me. For example, the exploits of the princess Anne Dare and her maid Austra is a perfectly fine story line in concept and it is believably written and genuinely related, but it just didn’t have the defining idioms or distinctive style as others. Yes, the character of Anne is written adequately as a head strong and somewhat spoiled (but capable) princess, but there is little to distinguish her from all the other head strong and somewhat spoiled (yet capable) princesses in so many other fantasy tales. Then there is the late addition of a destitute but brilliant swordsman with a chip on his shoulder, and I kept expecting him to break out with “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Well enough conceived, yes, but not distinct enough to keep my mind from wandering elsewhere.
That’s not to say that the book isn’t entertaining, and that Keyes somehow unredeemably falters in his worldbuilding. But with such a promising start, the weaknesses are thrown into sharper relief than sometimes they can bear. For example, magic, especially those magics associated with monasteries and convents, is awfully darned convenient, even if imaginatively realized. While not spiraling out of control as some other authors allow to happen, and truthfully well integrated into the action, nevertheless it would be nice if secondary characters (and in some cases, main characters) relied more on their wits than on unexpected and timely skills appearing at the nick of time.
Then there is the perplexing penchant for the biggest baddies to turn benign for unknown reasons at key moments. Yes, I realize that this is only the first of four, but the lack of explanation or even solid speculation at the break off or lack of attacks is baffling and should have at least a modicum of reason or resolution. And since some of the other actions in the world are so horrific, the tacit neutralization of the most feared elements at the height of the conclusion of the book is especially unfulfilling.
But what perhaps was most unsettling to me was a lack of an elemental thread to hold all these story lines together. Although the Briar King and his bestial familiar the greffyn are the stuff of nightmare in the land, over and over it is the actions of men that prove to be the most horrendous. The greffyn may break off its attack but men can be counted on to go beyond what is feared. Yet it does not feel that this man-as-evil sentiment is even a thematic undercurrent in The Briar King, or if it proves to be so, then it must emerge in subsequent books.
Still, Keyes is a very good writer, and while his world may not break much new ground in the fantasy genre, he does build it with great skill and a continuity of style that may seem flat in some cases but nevertheless is entertaining. I found that at the end of The Briar King enough of the story lines had come to at least satisfying (if tenuous) conclusions, so I didn’t feel compelled to immediately seek out the second volume. I’m sure someday I’ll finish “The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone” series, someday. But I’m not in any real hurry to do so.