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The Charnel Prince
Greg Keyes
Del Rey, 516 pages

The Charnel Prince
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: 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
Greg Keyes Author Feature at Del Rey
Excerpt from The Charnel Prince

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Greg Keyes' latest quadralogy, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, continues in this second volume.

In a world other than our own -- formerly the domain of the inhuman Skasloi, who were long ago overthrown by the human beings they once held as slaves -- in the second millennium of an age known as Everon, fearful change is stirring. Fell creatures out of myth and folklore stalk the countryside and terrorize the populace. The Church, keeper of the power of the saints, secretly seeks to wake forbidden magics. William, King of Crotheny, and most of his family lie dead, betrayed by his mad brother Robert. And on a night of a purple moon, a blast blown on an ancient horn summons from sleep the mythic Briar King, a being known by many names and to many legends, but in all of them a harbinger of the end of the age of man.

Targeted for murder with the rest of her family, Queen Muriele has survived -- as has the Princess Anne, though assassins were sent after her in the far land of Vitellio where she was at school. Now Muriele, torn by grief, must negotiate the treacherous political waters of the court, where powerful nobles and equally powerful representatives of the Church scheme to break her tenuous hold on power and seize rule for themselves. She sends the young knight Neil MeqVren, who helped save her life from the assassins and is the one man whose loyalty she trusts, to find Anne and bring her home. But Anne herself is trying to get back to Crotheny, and also to elude the killers who still pursue her. She's aware that more than politics is involved: through strange dream-visitations by a quartet of masked women who call themselves the Faiths, she has learned that a great fate hinges on her choices. If she does not return to Crotheny and become queen, a terrible doom will fall upon the world.

Meanwhile, Aspar White, holter of the King's Forest, along with his lover Winna and Stephen Darige, a young scholar formerly in priestly training (and who blew the horn that summoned the Briar King), are dispatched on a mission by Hespero, praifec of the Church: they are to return to the King's Forest, find the Briar King, and kill him with a magical arrow, one of the most ancient relics of the Church. As they near the forest, they encounter horrifying creatures out of legend; the villages they pass are strangely empty, and those who live nearby tell fearful tales of hordes of mindless savages who run naked and devour human flesh. Even more terrible, they stumble on the secret work of the Church, unthinkably savage rituals intended -- Stephen believes -- to wake the forbidden power of the damned saints. Embarking on a desperate race to prevent the rituals' completion, they begin to realize that the fearsome and mysterious Briar King may be a power far less malign than those that oppose him.

The continuation of a much longer tale that still has far to go, The Charnel Prince isn't totally open-ended; it does bring one plot arc to a close, with a much-matured Anne poised at the end to claim her throne. But it is a bridge book, and as is sometimes the case with bridge books, the threads stretch thin at times, as Aspar and Stephen and Winna go out again into the forest for a series of pursuit-and-flight adventures different in content but similar in feel to those they endured in the first book, and Anne's attempts to return home unfold in a succession of somewhat repetitive chase sequences. Too, a new viewpoint character -- Leovigild Ackenzal, a composer commissioned by Muriele to compose a revelatory, revolutionary opera to stir the hearts of the people against the oppression of Crotheny's false rulers -- isn't especially compelling, and his experiences, though they do allow him (and thus the reader) to observe crucial aspects of the supernatural and political struggle that's overtaking Crotheny, feel more like side trips than part of the main journey.

These are relatively minor quibbles, though, and while The Charnel Prince didn't generate for me the pure reading pleasure that its predecessor did, it is nevertheless a solid installment in a chronicle whose carefully constructed setting continues to fascinate, whose unfolding mysteries continue to tantalize, and whose well-drawn and sympathetic characters, though irresistibly compelled by events, never become mere plot pawns. As before, the book's greatest strength is its powerful, menacing evocation of half-comprehended dark forces waking into a world that has not exactly forgotten them, but has sanitized and trivialized them, and is only just beginning to remember the nightmare truth -- as in this striking description of the coming of the Briar King: "He followed her gaze and saw that the trees were still trembling, swaying even, and he felt as if the sun were rising, but there was no light. Just the feel of radiance on his face and the sense of change." Nor is the reader allowed to forget that behind the magical events and the political intrigue, deeper questions loom: what exactly were the saints, and why does their power linger in the world? Who are Anne's dream-women, the Faiths (the Fates)? Why has the Briar King chosen this moment to wake -- and what sort of ending, really, does his coming promise?

There's some reference to previous events to refresh the memories of those who've read The Briar King, but otherwise Keyes continues the story without drawing a breath. Given the complexity of the world building, especially the historical and magical lore, readers new to the series shouldn't begin with The Charnel Prince; in fact, even if you've already read the first installment it might be a good idea to skim it before diving into this one. The saga will continue in The Blood Knight, due sometime in 2005.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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