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The Born Queen: Book Four of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone
Greg Keyes
Del Rey, 464 pages

The Born Queen: Book Four of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone
Greg 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 Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Charnel Prince
SF Site Review: Newton's Cannon
SF Site Review: The Briar King
SF Site Review: The Briar King
SF Site Review: Dark Genesis
SF Site Review: Newton's Cannon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dustin Kenall

Perfection isn't always good enough. With The Born Queen, Greg Keyes delivers a stellar conclusion to his quartet The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone that nevertheless leaves the reader earthbound in an ultimately conventional, if unconventionally well written, epic fantasy. Keyes executes each of the key elements of the genre as masterfully as his dessrata (fencing) champion Cazio dispatches enemies. He properly reconstructs rather than simply incorporates uncanny linguistic and anthropological sources from this world to breathe verisimilitude into his own. He deals, at a lethally brisk pace, hands of fate to his characters that no card-counting reader could anticipate. His prose hustles the reader forward into the story rather than the other way around. On a technical level, it is difficult to dispute that Keyes has accomplished everything he set out to on the terms of the story he intended to tell. But by playing the genre so traditionally, however impeccably, he has revealed its limits, even if they are not coterminous with his own.

Keyes's saga began with the publication in 2004 of The Briar King, in which is recounted the assassination of the greater part of the royal household of Dare of the kingdom of Crotheny; the defense of its fled princess, Anne, and her maid, Austra, by a dashing, sunkissed fencer, Cazio; and the intersecting journeys of a young nobleman scholar, Stephen Darige, with a holter (guardian) of the King's Wood, Aspar White. In 2005, readers returned to his world with The Charnel Prince, in which was witnessed the usurpation of the throne by the resurrected Robert Dare, paternal uncle to Anne. Then, in 2007, Keyes released The Blood Knight, a penultimate volume revealing the murder of the forest-guardian Briar King, the rise and fall of a poisonous Dune-esque worm, Anne's awakening to her supernatural birthright, and the identity of the eponymous sanguineous chevalier.

The Born Queen resumes the story in the thick of things without leave to catch your breath -- readers are encouraged to review the previous books or at least freshen up via wikipedia. If in the prior volumes the story simmered, here it blasts on full boil. Keyes weaves the novel from five separate points-of-view: short, staccato-sharp chapters that, by the last 100 pages, accelerate and collide in a heady stampede. The stakes of the previous novels (whether certain characters live or die, who occupies a temporal throne) alternate with a grander scheme in The Born Queen that concerns the fate of the world. Surprises are, if not liberally, precisely sprinkled. Keyes otherwise avoids complacency by a careful attention to the mechanics of prose: diction, syntax, micro-level organization. His paragraphs are as measured and dynamic as his chapters. Careful word choice (e.g., glister, bedimmed, churr) in both dialogue and descriptive passages infuses the prose with the breeze of another living world, much like Gene Wolfe's use of archaic neologisms did for The Book of the New Sun.

The conclusion, brilliant but flawed, is frustrating. Two major revelations occur, both of which are unexpected. In the earlier of the two, a legendarily insane historical figure is reincarnated. The first disappointment is that little distinguishes this character's voice from the voice of Robert Dare, his contemporary foil. The second is that these too baroquely evil madmen never meet. By contrast, the second revelation is a gem perfectly hidden in plain sight and not revealed until the very end. As an additional pleasure, in a codex, Keyes honors another character with a poignant Atonement-style valediction.

So what's wrong with Keyes's endgame? Primarily, the fact that everything (plot, characters, destinies, stakes) gets too big too fast and then hinges on one individual's sentimentality. In the first place, the background for the struggle (a heap of exposition concerning three magical thrones) is conveyed almost entirely through dialogue rather than drama. Keyes does his best with the constraints (4 books, 400-plus pages, 5 years -- amazing) he's imposed on himself, but the reader is rushed to comprehension, which falters in places: I'm still not sure what the purpose of the Blood Knight was, who he worked for, and why he collaborated with the Sarnwood Witch. Additionally, there's too little recognition of the role of historical chance or the tragedian's feel for misunderstanding and disaster. The fate of the world hinges on the outcome of the struggle between the corrupting taint of absolute power and the moral accountability of friendship. I should have been harrowed but instead was reminded of Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

And herein lies the heart of the problem. While Keyes was planning and composing his series, the genre evolved. Today, television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and movies such as The Dark Knight succeed not because of their spectacular settings but because they adapt genre conventions to contemporary issues such as terrorism, emergency ethics, group psychology, and the unstable definition of heroism. In fiction, fantasy such as David Anthony Durham's Acacia tackles the issue of pragmatism versus idealism in a multi-ethnic, multi-polar world confronting the quandary of global governance. Even George R.R. Martin's continuing (and continually delayed) series has evolved. What began as a historical-fiction approach to the fantasy epic substantially indebted to the style of Sharon Kay Penman has grown into a unique meditation on the imperatives of realpolitik and the end of the (post Cold War) bipolarity of good and evil. Keyes's series, in distinction, most resembles Lost, a story that irresistibly commands the subject's attention but cannot definitively rebut the accusation that its virtuosity is a shell game hiding a Rube Goldberg.

But these quibbles pale in comparison to the virtues of Keyes's sequence. Simply put, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is one of the finest traditional fantasy series of the past two decades. It's too bad that's not the same anymore as calling it a classic.

Copyright © 2008 Dustin Kenall

Dustin Kenall is a lawyer working and blogging in DC. Accordingly, if at any given moment he's not reading or writing, it's probably because he's unconscious. His blog,, is always wide awake, though.

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