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The Briar King: Vol. 1 of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone
Greg Keyes
Del Rey, 552 pages

The Briar King
J. Gregory Keyes
Greg Keyes was born in Meridian, Mississippi, to a large, diverse, storytelling family. He received degrees in anthropology from Mississippi State and the University of Georgia before becoming a full-time writer. He is the author of the Age of Unreason series and the Children of the Changeling series, as well as several novels set in the Star Wars and Babylon 5 universes.

Greg Keyes Author Feature at Del Rey
Greg Keyes Interview
Excerpt from The Briar King
SF Site Review: Dark Genesis
SF Site Review: Newton's Cannon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The Briar King, the opener to Greg Keyes's new epic fantasy series The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, begins on the pre-history of a world other than our own. The mysterious Skasloi have been defeated by the human slaves they have kidnapped from various lands and periods on our earth, in an uprising led by powerful mage Virginia Elizabeth Dare (the alert reader will recognize here a neat alternate-world solution for the puzzle of the lost English colony on Roanoke Island). But as Virginia Dare stands victorious above the last Skasloi lord, he utters a warning: Virginia and her champions don't understand the darkness of the sedos magic they have stolen to gain their power, and their use of it has doomed them.

Skip forward a couple of millennia. The line of Virginia Dare has survived; her direct descendent Muriele is wife to the King of Crotheny, one of the largest and most powerful of the kingdoms human beings have built upon the ruins of the Skaslois' domain (and possibly domains even older). All is not well. The threat of war with Hansa, another powerful kingdom, looms, and dark intrigues are afoot at court. When a magically-enhanced assassination attempt on Muriele is foiled only by the merest chance, the King -- encouraged by his devious brother Robert to believe (falsely) that the attack was masterminded by Hansa -- decrees that Muriele and their children must travel to the fortress at Cal Azroth, where he thinks they will be safe. Only willful Princess Anne is exempted from this order: because of her refusal to take the responsibilities of her royal station seriously, her mother has decided to send her to the Coven of St. Cer to be trained as an assassin.

Elsewhere in Crotheny, King's holter Aspar White is beginning to sense that something is not right in the great, primeval forest he's charged to protect and guard. The Sefry, a non-human race whose lives have always centered around the forest, are fleeing it; they speak of the waking of the Briar King, a figure out of myth and fairy tale whose rising supposedly portends the end of the age of humankind, and possibly the end of everything else as well. Aspar knows the legends, and has never believed them; but when he discovers strange and horrible human sacrifices deep in the woods, and encounters a greffyn, a deadly beast he'd always believed as mythical as the Briar King himself, he begins to re-think his doubt. Meanwhile, Stephen Darige, a scholarly novice monk assigned to translate newly-discovered ancient texts, uncovers tales of terrible magics and savage rituals -- and realizes, to his horror, that some of his fellow monks are engaged in just such rites. And far away at St Cer, Princess Anne is visited by a vision of a masked woman who warns her that there must be a born queen in Crotheny when he comes -- though who or what he is, the apparition will not say.

The Briar King features familiar story elements -- court intrigue, ancient prophecy, dark and secret magics, waking powers, the approach of an apocalyptic evil -- and an equally familiar array of character types -- the weakling king, the wronged queen, the devious counselor, the gruff woodsman, the headstrong princess with a destiny. But it's by no means the formula fantasy that such a description would suggest. Keyes brings these epic conventions to vibrant life with well-motivated plot turns, dynamic action scenes, a powerful underlying sense of dark mystery and menace, and characters that aren't cardboard archetypes, but fully-drawn individuals whose ambiguous motivations and convincing inner lives lend depth to the plot-driven narrative. The setting too is imagined with intelligence and skill, from the various kingdoms and domains with their altered but identifiable European antecedents (Keyes plays inventively with language, making up tongues for his different nations that are just recognizable as corruptions of existing languages), to the intricate historical background against which the action plays out, revealed in tantalizing bits and pieces over the course of the book. The significance of history -- not only history correctly remembered, but also history altered, corrupted or lost -- is a recurring theme, and I suspect will continue to be important to the series as it progresses. (Less convincing is the fact that Crotheny and the other kingdoms have existed for more than two thousand years at a cultural and technological level apparently little changed from that of the sixteenth century Roanoke settlers -- I find it pretty implausible, even in a world that includes magic, that these European-style cultures wouldn't have experienced an industrial revolution. This millennial timespan is the only high fantasy convention in the book that doesn't totally work.)

Especially well-drawn is the mythic and religious background, including a powerful and somewhat ambiguous church, which appears to have taken all or most magic into its keeping and to have codified a complicated religious doctrine based on the dark sedos power utilized long ago by Virginia Dare, and the even darker myths and legends the church has co-opted or suppressed -- particularly the tale of the Briar King, which may pre-date even the Skasloi. Though no one really believes in the Briar King (except perhaps for the Sefry), his presence twines a shadowy thread through the memory of all human cultures, embodied in local harvest or spring festivals, in ghost stories, in country legends, in traditional songs, in children's games. Throughout the book, the characters encounter these legends and traditions, each of which suggests something slightly different about the Briar King's nature and significance, building suspense as it slowly becomes apparent that the Briar King is all too real.

Like most first series installments, The Briar King exists principally to introduce characters and settings, to establish what's at stake, and to pose the questions the rest of the series will answer. Keyes avoids a sense of stasis, however, by providing a complete story arc -- the book begins on the mystery of the Briar King and concludes its solution, thus tying up at least one major narrative thread -- and by forcing change upon his principal characters, all of whom, by book's end, find themselves not just in radically altered physical circumstances, but transformed inwardly in some important way as well. Skillfully conceived, stirringly executed, this is a book that will remind jaded readers of just why the traditional high fantasy epic remains so enduringly popular. Reportedly there are to be four volumes in all; the next, The Charnel Prince, is due in 2004.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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