Thursday, October 28, 2004

Book Review: The Charnel Prince - Greg Keyes

The publication of "The Briar King" announced the start of an excellent new fantasy series. Greg Keyes had already published 6 previous fantasy novels, but "The Briar King" was absolutely stunning. "The Charnel Prince" continues the story set forth in the first volume. King William of Crotheny and his daughters have been murdered by his brother, Prince Robert. William's daughter, Anne Dare is on the run. There are strange goings on in the Church and some of the clergy have been involved in some dark magic. By the end of "The Briar King" the mythical Briar King has returned to Crotheny, nobody is quite sure why, or how, but only that it happened. From this point we begin "The Charnel Prince".

Anne Dare is in hiding. She was rescued from a massacre by the swordsman Cazio and she is now under his protection with nobody else to turn to. She sees assassins around every corner and to be honest, her fears are justified. She is the heir to the throne of Crotheny and somebody wants her dead. Cazio and Anne are accompanied by a mysterious drunkard named Z'Acatto. Queen Muriele only has a tenuous grasp on the throne of Crotheny. She is the regent for her half-wit son and with war threatening Crotheny, there is pressure for a new power to ascend to the throne. Muriele sends the knight Neil MeqVren to find her daughter Anne, to return her to Crotheny, but all Anne knows is that her family was betrayed and murdered, so she (and her protectors) suspect everyone.

Meanwhile, Aspar and Stephen (the King's holter and a former monk) are sent on a quest by the Church to find and to kill the Briar King. The King's Forest is being overrun by brambles and mythical monsters roam the land. The presumption is that the Briar King is the cause of this, and so must be stopped.

The new addition to this novel is in the character of Leoff. Leoff is a composer. What exactly is a composer doing in the midst of a high fantasy novel rife with swords and intrigue and a little sorcery? Good question, and one which I do not have a very good answer except to wait and see. The good news is that Leoff is instantly one of the most interesting characters in the novel and it will be fascinating to see how he develops. Leoff was commissioned by King Robert to join the court as the official composer of Crotheny. Leoff has earned the disapproval of the Church because his music is not traditional enough and may "stir the emotions". Unchurchly stuff, that. With King Robert dead, Leoff does not know if he will have a place at court or what his role might be if he does. But he intends to find out.

Novels in the high fantasy genre tend to all have a certain similarity to them. They are often set in a time that feels like the Middle Ages, have magic, swords, kings, perhaps a powerful religious organization, and have epic quests. The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone have all this, but Greg Keyes also succeeds in helping to set a new standard for the genre. Greg Keyes, along with a George R R Martin, is setting the bar very high in terms of excellence. One of the best things about this book (and "The Briar King") is that Keyes will start with familiar character types (Neil, Aspar, Anne, Cazio...these are all familiar characters), but how Keyes builds his world and his story is uncommonly well done. He takes cliches like the corrupt church and the headstrong princess and weaves such a masterful story that by the time you finish the book, you would have never have predicted this is where the story was going, that this is what Keyes was telling us. It is the sense of surprise and wonder that Greg Keyes has brought to his novels, plus a bit of brutality, that sets him apart and above many of his contemporaries in the field.

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