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The Briar King
J. Gregory Keyes
Tor UK, 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.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Briar King
SF Site Review: Dark Genesis
SF Site Review: Newton's Cannon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John Berlyne

Of all fictional genres, I believe fantasy to be the one that holds the most traps for the writer. By definition, fantasy stories must contain certain prerequisites that readers expect to see -- dragons, wizards, magic (good and/or evil), courtly intrigues, myths, legends and prophecies (these last three generally count as one), Kings, Queens, jesters, potions, witches, monsters, elves, dwarves, etc. -- you know the kind of thing. Not all these ingredients have to be present to make a book fantasy, but at least two or three generally make for the basic recipe.

So, readers want these elements in their fantasy novels -- but the more discerning readers don't want to see them repeated and rehashed ad nauseum. We (and I must count myself among their number!) want a new twist or torque on these established tropes -- the same, but new -- we want to see the wheel reinvented. So how does a writer of fantasy come up with a new dish that includes these basic ingredients? Well, if I knew the answer to that I'd be a writer. This preamble brings me on to The Briar King -- the new fantasy by Greg Keyes published by the new Tor UK imprint and though it doesn't exactly redefine the genre, it certainly uses the basics well enough. Already released in the US, the novel has been very well received by both readers and critics alike. Keyes is, to date, best known for his excellent Age of Unreason series (written as J. Gregory Keyes) and this new work is a departure for the author, away from his more science fantasy-oriented fare to a recognizably traditional fantasy world with a medieval European setting.

The Empire of Crotheny has a black history, its various nations forever warring with each other. This age of bickering men follows on a millennia or two after humans broke free of their enslavement by monstrous Skalsoi. But this is mere background for Keyes' novel, for it is concerned more with the current politics of the Crotheny court and, at a deeper level, the great evil that is awakening in the land.

In the King's forest, scenes of foul murder are discovered, bodies despoiled and desecrated. This has caused the Sefry (a kind of indigenous, gypsy people) to leave the forest where they have foraged for generations. The King's Holter, Asper White, sets off to find the cause of their migration. En route he rescues a young cleric, Stephen Darige, from bandits and together they begin to unravel the signs that a dark prophecy is finally coming to pass.

Elsewhere, we meet a young squire, soon to become a knight. Neil MaqVren is travelling to court in the company of his mentor who is to counsel the Emperor on the troubles in his lands. At the court, we also meet the Emperor's youngest daughter, Anne, who with her maid, stumbles upon a ancient tomb. And we then meet the Queen and learn of her woes; then Emperor himself who is a na´ve politician at best and an idiot at worst; then later on we meet a dashing young swordsman with a wit as sharp as his rapier... and so on.

This large cast, all of whom are point-of-view characters, represent what I found to be the most glaring problem with The Briar King. So many switches of viewpoint in what is a novel with a pretty complex plot, neither endears or engages the reader. Though certainly each of Keyes' principals is well drawn and vibrantly written, the net result of so many protagonists all vying for the reader's attention is that the story itself is stubbornly slow to emerge. I found myself a good third of the way through the book before I felt sufficiently grabbed.

Though hard going for while at least, Keyes' novel is worth persevering with. Once past the early briar patch, the story starts to motor, incorporating recognisable mythology that touches upon both the Green Man and Fisher King legends and offers interesting and inverted variations on both. Here, the king awakes when the land is sick and it is the sickness itself that he thrives upon. This is black and portentous magic, heavy and full of earthy meaning and very, very effective. Likewise, once the threat behind the novel becomes clear, one can finally begin to appreciate all the myriad characters and the intentions they play out.

The overall setting sits firmly in the traditional and as such The Briar King is not by any means a groundbreaking piece. For one thing, Keyes is certainly guilty of falling into the traps of linguistic balance -- made up words like "sceat" for "shit", "kann" for "think" and any number of others offer no additional atmosphere or cultural background, and the medieval court speaks a very informal transatlantic vernacular that often robs it of its credibility. Indeed in these terms, The Briar King suffers from a little too much fantasy fat to set the pulse racing or to distinguish itself from any other novel of the genre. But after staggering and stumbling initially, The Briar King gathers enough momentum to redeem itself and for all my critical nitpicking, remains a book that ought to be read by all fans of fantasy.

Copyright © 2003 John Berlyne

John Berlyne is a book junkie with a serious habit. He is the long time UK editor of and is widely acknowledged to be the leading expert on the works of Tim Powers. John's extensive Powers Bibliography "Secret Histories" will be published in April 2009 by PS Publishing. When not consuming genre fiction, John owns and runs North Star Delicatessen, a gourmet food outlet in Chorlton, Manchester.

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