Wednesday, 28 January 2009

'The Briar King' - Greg Keyes (Guest Review!)

We're doing things a little bit differently today :o) You still get a book review but it's not me doing it...
A few weeks ago, Ana and Thea (of The Book Smugglers) cottoned on to the fact that I've never read any of 'The Sandman' books and dared me to fill in this gap in my genre reading. I was up for the challenge and if you head over to their blog you will see exactly what I thought...
Don't go just yet! You see, I dared them right back... I noticed that there isn't an awful lot of fantasy over at their place and dared them to read the opening book in one of my favourite fantasy series. Here's what they thought...

Title: The Briar King

Author: Greg Keyes

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Del Rey (Tor UK if you're in the UK)
Publication Date: January 2003
Paperback: 608 pages

Stand Alone or Series: Book one in the four book Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series.

Why did we read this book: Graeme dared us, plain and simple! He noticed that we had a lack of high/epic fantasy reviews on our site, and threw down the gauntlet with The Briar King.

Summary: (from
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.


First Impressions:

Thea: When Graeme first dared us to read this novel, I was somewhat hesitant. I really do enjoy epic fantasy novels, but am reluctant to pick them up on my own without trusted recommendations. Ana and I are never ones to back down from a challenge—plus, we trust Graeme’s good taste in books. So it was with mixed feelings of trepidation and excitement that I opened this novel and plunged into the story.

The immediate thought that came to me while reading the first few chapters of The Briar King was: this kinda reminds me of the Song of Ice and Fire books (as they share the same multi-character cast and the by-chapter alternating viewpoints). That said, as I continued to read the novel it became abundantly clear that Mr. Keyes is no mere knockoff act—and I found myself immensely enjoying The Briar King. The world building is solid, the plotting strong, and the characters (with few exceptions) come across as genuine and well-written.

Ana: I love fantasy novels but will admit to read very little of the genre and I don’t even have a good excuse for it. When Graeme dared us, I was, how can I put it—giddy with excitement and when I read the summary for The Briar King I was even happier.

And the first few pages were already right up my alley—with a Prelude that has a mix of History, Mythology, Action, Humor and Characterization, all of the elements that make a book a Good One. The more I read, the more it became clear that Greg Keyes is a skillful writer and The Briar King an amazing piece of fiction.

On the Plot:

The Briar King begins with a literal bang, opening on a rain drenched army of tired and bleeding men, rotting in trenches while waiting for their orders to charge. Led by their Born Queen, the men attack the citadel of their demonic enslavers, the Skasloi. Though the humans emerge victorious, it comes as a great cost—in order for Virgenya Dare, the Born Queen, to wield the power to give mankind their freedom, she has also sealed the doom of the human race by setting in motion the slow, cataclysmic end of the world.

From this prologue the story jumps to over two-thousand years later in the time of Everon, and begins with a young princess of Crotheny named Anne. Playing with her best friend and lady-in-waiting Austra, six year old Anne stumbles upon a mysterious tomb that has lain silent and forgotten for hundreds of years. Anne realizes that the tomb belongs to her many times over great ancestor, Virgenya Dare, and Anne unlocks the silent grave. The story jumps again to a few years later, as Aspar White, holter of the King’s Forest discovers that something is amiss in his woods; something sinister is killing squatters, rivers and animals alike. On the road to finding what could be at the root of the deaths, Aspar comes across a young priestly novice, Stephen Darige, who has been kidnapped by bandits.

Within the first few chapters, we meet almost the entire cast—the story jumps to follow the pure of heart (but low of birth) squire Neil MeqVren as he is taken by his mentor and father figure Sir Fail to Crotheny to meet the King. There, the royal family is introduced: the now fifteen year old impetuous Anne Dare and her puppy-love Sir Roderick; her eldest sister the bitter Archgryffess Fastia; the beautiful, intelligent but shunned Queen Muriele and her dearest friend, the coven-trained assassin Erren; and the bumbling, tired King William and his untrustworthy brother Robert.

The novel continues to alternate in this fashion as these characters move along separate storylines towards an inevitable convergence. Someone is trying to destroy the female descendants of Virgenya Dare, and these characters play major roles as the end of the world is nigh, and the Briar King begins to wake from his slumber.

Thea: As with many first novels in a series, The Briar King painstakingly defines, builds and sets the stage for the main event. And what a beautiful job Mr. Keyes does with his universe in this opening novel! From the thrilling prologue (probably one of the best opening battle scenes I’ve read in a while), The Briar King screamed for my attention and never let go. While the setting (the usual western European/British model of monarchy, complete with forests, taverns, monasteries/covens and mountains) is pretty standard as is the overall plot conflict (the Dark is Rising and must be staunched by a few key characters in order to save the world), Keyes manages to imbue freshness to The Briar King because of his attention to details, locations and characters. There is no data dumping at all in this novel, which is no small feat. Instead of some contrived history lesson type of conversation, Keyes gradually shows all the nations and people of Everon through the perspectives of his characters; with his multi-character cast, we see things from the perspectives of a troubled King on the political level, a disinterested princess, and a priest and Holter on the ground level. The effect is ingenious, and I never once felt lost or that I was the victim of a massive information drop-load.

Every aspect of Keyes’s world came across as meticulously planned out and as a result, were fully genuine. I loved the color given to the different regions and nations of Everon, even if they were all pretty easily recognizable as other western cultures (Germans, Italians, French, etc). I also should mention that Keyes does a wonderful job at conveying these similarities through a skilful manipulation/creation of language! For example:

“Gozh margens ezwes, mehelz brodar Ehan,” Stephen said.

“Eh?” Brother Ehan exclaimed. “That's Herilanzer! How is it you speak my language?”

And then later:

“But--Eh Danka 'zwes, yah? Thanks.”

Ehan’s Herilanzer is a clever derivation from German. Many different languages are used in this novel, and what’s cooler is they aren’t merely random words thrown together that look pretty—there is an attention to different root languages on which each tongue is based.

While I think that Mr. Keyes does a brilliant job of taking fantasy tropes and making them his own, I did take some issue with the plotting. I have no problems with the main conflict in The Briar King for all of its apparent banality—I quite enjoyed the story and felt that Keyes breathes new life into what could have been a tired, dull tale. I did, however, feel that the pacing was unnecessarily protracted at times, and rushed at others. Keyes deftly moves from chapter to chapter, switching characters and storylines like popping PEZ, and for the most part this technique works to maintain suspense and keep readers on their toes—but not all storylines are created equally. I found myself impatiently reading through Anne’s trysts with Roderick in order to get back to the Holter and Winna’s death-defying escape from the Sefry; I became irritated with Neil’s reflections on his conscience and humble birth or Cazio’s numerous duels hustling for coin when all I wanted was to get back to Stephen, in the midst of making a major find in his monastery. By the last few chapters of the novel, so much happens with the climax of battles, secret assassinations and the waking of the Briar King himself—and it unfortunately felt rushed. I would have loved to trade off more of that initial exposition and less important sideplots for more meat with the main characters and the Briar King himself.

Ana: The dark is rising and when it does the world is going to change forever. As far as tropes go this one is right up there with the ragtag band of misfits that go around the galaxy fighting the evil empire or the reprobate rake that needs redeeming in the hands of a good woman. There is a reason these tropes are used and re-used – because when they are done right, they work. And in The Briar King, thanks to Greg Keyes’s writing skills, it does.

The plot evolves basically around the rising of the Briar King – which no one knows exactly what entails – and the problems at the house of the Dares, the current Queens and Kings of Crotheny. The basic plot is therefore simple but as Thea says, Greg Keyes, takes it and makes it his own. He expands it with intricate political scheming, with mythological history and the use of magic (and of dark magic) that appears in the most unexpected places for examples, in the Church as each novice earns a magical power as he is initiated; and there are plenty of twists and turns that I never saw coming (and I am usually pretty good at predicting plot outcomes).

The alternating chapters from the different character’s points of view are at the same time building up tension towards the climax and peeling back layers of the story adding up suspense as we (and the characters) gather the necessary knowledge of what is happening. It is all very ingenious and I was extremely impressed at the writer’s craft – even though at points, it did feel that the pacing was unequal and that some of the chapters were unnecessary. Although, all things considered these chapters were somewhat important for characterization if not for the plot – even if I was impatient with some of them, in the end I felt that nothing was lost and all things fell in place and every single information was put to good use.

Also worthy of note is the presence of romance and humor in the story – even in the darkest moments the author manages to insert a funny line that just fit and a bit of love here and there I am a sucker for those.

The Briar King is clearly a “first” in a series – the whole book is a HUGE set-up but as far as set-up goes this one is solid foundation on which to build the remaining chapters and as a reader I could not ask for more.

On the Characters:

Thea: As with the plot aspects, Mr. Keyes favors fantasy clichés with his characters. There’s the gruff on the outside but softie on the inside Holter; the brash, outspoken Princess who is Chosen to change the fate of the world; the Knight with the purest of hearts; the Novice Priest with his knowledge and wisecracks; the daring, down on his luck swashbuckling Rogue (also equipped with a good heart in the right place); the dastardly scheming Brother, and his plays for the throne; and the strong-willed, beautiful but frigid Queen, well steeped in court games and intrigue. It’s like a top 40 playlist for NOW Fantasy.

And yet, as with his world building and plotting skills, Mr. Keyes manages to take these fantasy tropes and make them compulsively readable. Even if their classifications are simple and stereotypical, their motivations are what drive these characters and set them apart from their labels. In fact, my favorite character was one of the most clichéd—the Holter, Apsar White as the typical gruff woodsman, a reluctant hero set to make things right in his King’s forest. Heck, when we first meet Aspar, he’s drinking ale in a tavern! But his motivations, from his begrudging affection for both Winna and Stephen to his derision towards the Sefry make him a tangible, fully dimensional character. The only missteps in my opinion concerned young Anne Dare and Neil MeqVren—though I generally liked Anne and her storyline, there were times when I was reading a conversation and would think to myself that no fifteen year old girl would know that or speak like that.

Similarly, Sir Neil left me pretty cold. In Mr. Keyes’s universe, characters seem to fall head over heels in love rather quickly, and the storyline involving Neil and a certain lady love (I won’t spoil it) felt, to me, rushed, contrived and unnecessary. In general, I felt Neil was the flattest of the characters—predictably noble-hearted and virtuous, sticking to his vows at all costs and fighting valiantly and bravely to protect his queen. He’s literally your Knight in Shining Armor. Gag.

Far more interesting to me are the flawed characters—who will always be more genuine than a knight on a white horse. King Wilm’s reluctance to get his hands dirty, Queen Muriele’s steely resolve, Erren’s sternness, Cazio’s bragging, Anne’s brattishness, Stephen’s sly humor…it’s all good.

Ana: The Holter. The Novice. The Princess. The Squire – the four players that are the heart and soul of The Briar King – the ones that carry the story with alternating chapters and interconnecting storylines. There are others like the King or the Queen but I can’t help but to think of a game of chess where sometimes the most important pieces are really the pawns and all of them clearly have their place in the overall arc that is being set up here.

I am a reader that favors character-driven books over plot-driven ones and I was ecstatic when I realized that The Briar King was both – those are the best books.

I thought that every single character was carefully built with their motivations and most important of all – each has its own story arc. Brilliantly done, each character arc is at the same time individual and collective. Aspar, the Holter for example is in search of revenge and ends up finding love but also is honor-bound to find out what is hurting the forest of his King; Sir Neil, the Knight who must conquer his own heart to fight for his Queen and is in the middle of things (granted, he was boring – I have to agree with Thea here, his love story with the character that shall remain unnamed came out of nowhere and I was so surprised I jumped and wondered if I had skipped pages); Stephen, The Novice, who is in search of Knowledge and needs to walk his own faneway and find his own power but ends up finding a plot with dire consequences for the kingdom; Anne, the Princess, the one that has the longest way to go, from girl to woman and has an important role to play when all is say and done.

Out of all of them Stephen and Anne were my favorites. Anne who started as a girl who simply did not care about anything and had much to learn and before the books ends she does. And I really liked this passage when the Queen tells Anne:

“Most people in this kingdom would kill to live your life, to enjoy the privilege you hold. You will never know hunger, or thirst , or lack for clothing and shelter. You will never suffer the slightest tiny boil without that the finest physician in the land spends his hours easing the pain and healing you. You are indulged, spoiled, and pampered. And you do not appreciate it in the least. And here, Anne, here is the price you pay for your privilege: it is responsibility. “

Similarly Stephen also had a long way to go from a naïve novice to finding corruption and cruelty within the confines of the monastery – the scenes that took place in there were some of the best in the book. Stephen was also the character that added the most humorous passages – especially in relation to Aspar:

“Stephen Darige composed a treatise in his head as he rode along, entitled Observations on the Quaint and Vulgar Behaviors of the Common Holter-Beast.
This pricker-backed woodland creature is foul in temper, mood, and odor, and on no account should it be approached by men of good or refined sensibility. Politeness angers it , civility enrages it, and reasonableness evokes furious behavior, like that of a bear that, while stealing honey, finds a bee lodged up his – “

The villains are terrifying and I thought highly impressive that their motivations are still left open for interpretation and we still simply don’t know what the heck is going on.

From the fantastic 4 to the villains to the cast of secondary characters – the King, the Queen, their daughters, Cazio , Errem the lady assassin etc – you will be in good company should you decide do pick The Briar King up.

Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:

Thea: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from its intricate setting and wonderful (for the most part) characters. Plus, at its heart, it’s just a damn good read. I loved the little twist at the ending and have already added book two, The Charnel Prince to my Amazon cart. Thanks for the wonderful recommendation, Graeme!

Ana: I am at my happiest when a book has a good balance between plot and characterization such as this one. Even though it is plain that this is a huge set up and many things are yet to come, The Briar King was a thoroughly enjoyable novel on its own. And the cliffhanger? In one word: ¨%$$&(%#!!! Book 2 is already added to my Amazon cart as well and Thea and I are already planning another joint review! Hey Graeme, up for another dare?

Additional Thoughts:

Thea: My mass market paperback copy came complete with a two page map, which instantly has me salivating. I love maps. I want maps. Especially in books where so many locations and travelling adventures are used. While I hear that the original map in the hardcover is freaking sweet, my version of the map totally sucked. It is squished onto those two pages, very dark, and the names fonts are nearly illegible in what seems to be a pt. 2 font. And in italics. Gaah! How frustrating. I’d recommend trying to find a good used copy of the hardcover if you like maps with your reading.

Ana: We both really enjoyed The Briar King…are there any other fantasy books of this sort anyone can recommend for our continued reading pleasure?


Thea: 8 Excellent

Ana: 8 Excellent


No worries, I'm really glad you enjoyed it :o) As for another dare? Bring it on... ;o)


Colinhead said...

Well, since you asked... if you're looking for a character driven Epic Fantasy, you could do much worse than R. Scott Bakker's prince of nothing. The 4 main characters in those novels are fleshed out better than many fantasy novels. Also, anything by Hobb, but I recommend starting at Assassin's Apprentice. Neither of these authors play with fantasy tropes to the extent described here, though.

I also enjoy a well-characterized yarn. Details of setting and sometimes even plot tend to slip by my mind, while I worry at character details like candy, until I get every iota of goodness out. I am currently enjoying getting to know Locke Lamorra and Jean Tannen of the Gentlemen Bastards sequence.

Thea said...

Colinhead, thanks for the recommendations! I've actually read Assassin's Apprentice and have been meaning to pick up the next book in the series. I haven't read R. Scott Bakker though--Prince of Nothing has been added to the amazon cart.

Ana is a sucker for character-intensive books, whereas I'm much more into twisting, multi-layered plots and settings (Of course, we all love the golden ideal: excellent plotting plus characterization). It's interesting though--I'm far more willing to forgive a book with paler characters if the world building and plotting are brilliant. Nothing bothers me more than dropped/ignored/incomprehensible storylines! And naturally, it's vice versa for Ana :)

sbp said...

Wonderful review!

I enjoyed John Marco's Lukien trilogy.

ediFanoB said...

What a review! I started to read......I scrolled and read, and scrolled and read...

So now I feel well informed. Fortunately the whole Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series is on my shelf. Just need to find time to read...

I also read and enjoyed the Age of Unreason series.

Both series are different.

Thea said...

spb--Thank you! We actually just received a copy of John Marco's upcoming new book and are very excited to get into it, I'll have to check the Lukien trilogy out. Thanks for the recommendation!

ediFanoB--Heh, yes, Ana and I tend to write enormous reviews...whether that's a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen! But hey, I'm glad that we were able to get you into the book, and hopefully you'll find some time to give The Briar King a go :)

Thanks for the Age of Unreason rec--I'll make sure to check it out!