In The Briar King, he unleashed a creature ancient magic, in The Charnel Prince, the law of death was broken, and here in The Blood Knight, Greg Keyes once again turns the world of Crotheny upside down. At this point, you’ve probably read the preceding books in this wonderful saga, right? If you haven’t go and do that right now, I’ll wait until you get back.
Great, you’ve read those two, so you know Greg Keyes is building up to something pretty amazing in this series. Like the previous two books, his expert skills are on full display. He does a wonderful job of both staying true to what is so great about Epic Fantasy while reinventing and deconstructing the genre cliches.
In the third novel, Princess Anne Dare is still on the run while her mother, Muriele, is held captive by Robert, the undead brother of the late Emperor William. Robert killed his brother and now sits on the throne in Eslen while holding Leoff, the musician/composer introduced in The Charnel Prince captive. Meanwhile, Steven Darige, Aspar White and Winna are in the King’s Forest attempting to get to the heart of the magical mysteries.
Anne, as the other reviews here suggested, is fated to become princess and ruler of Crotheny. After all, this is Epic Fantasy and it is prophesized, so that means it will happen. However, while Anne was something of a noncommittal fop in the first book and grew up some in The Charnel Prince; here she definitely comes into her own. With the help of a couple of supernatural allies, she is a proactive, strong, and aggressive protagonist. While she demands from Robert what is hers by right, Anne doesn’t come off as the arrogant, petulant brat she did in earlier volumes. She has accepted her destiny, regretting her earlier foibles.
Comparing her to other fantastical heroines, one can draw parallels to Sansa Stark of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Malta Vestrit of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Trader novels. Of course, Anne’s story wouldn’t be as enjoyable and intriguing if Keyes didn’t allow her to stand on her own, apart from her contemporaries. Anne’s turn from stubborn princess to empowered Queen-to-be may not be as protracted or stark as those two contemporaries; however, it is no less enjoyable to see unfold.
In the first novel, Keyes revealed the world, through the eyes of the characters, with rich details. In The Charnel Prince, he added more characters, split up our heroes, and exposed more layers to an already lush world. In The Blood Knight, some of these characters are reunited, but many are still in their own parts of the world, discovering why the world is on the brink of destruction. In Keyes’ expert hands, these multiple points of view illustrates how much the chaos is touching every corner of the world.
More and more authors are blurring the lines between "good" and "evil," allowing their characters to wallow in a shade of grey. In turn, this provides a deeper reading experience, making the novel/story more of a participatory experience where the author doesn’t dictate what readers should absorb. Rather, they offer up the story and allow their readers to decide for themselves. With these books, Greg Keyes is doing just that. Sure, there are people doing bad things, some bad people doing things that might be good and good people doing things that might not be considered "good."
Perhaps the only concrete thing dictated in The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is how devastating it is to the world to break the law of death. This broken law is the reason why the Briar King is walking in the world, the reason why monstrous Gryffens are born into the world on a regular basis, and why nmen ride gigantic, poison-spewing worms through the King’s Forest. Even the Briar King, thought to be a enemy, or "evil" in the first installment, and less so in the second, turns out to be even less so here.
One of the great strengths of this series is it the pure immersive feeling of the world and story. Although it has bee almost two long years since The Charnel Prince was published, it was very easy to plunge back into the world. In fact, leaving the world once the last page turned was probably the most difficult aspect of the entire novel. While the cloud of chaos loomed over the heads of the characters in the first two installments, it was not as concrete as it has become in The Blood Knight.
On many levels, Keyes doesn’t let things in his world remain comforting for very long. He challenges both the reader’s preconceived notions of the Epic Fantasy trappings, while challenging his characters preconceived notions of the world in which they live. While there is a great deal of chaos in Keyes’ world, it is a cohesive chaos. To the characters, events might be confusing, but on a storytelling level, Keyes skills are abundantly clear, strong, and precise. Just when he hoped to have seen enough monsters to last his lifetime, Aspar White sees more creatures out of legend being birthed and running rampant in his forest. Perhaps this lack of comfort and world assumptions are best summed up in the character of Stephen Darige, the young scholar and holy man whose quest for knowledge leads him to discover harsh truths obscured by history. In each volume, Stephen’s view of the world, and the church to which he once was so devoted, crumbled under new discoveries, revealing more subplots and truths about this fantastical world.
All of the major characters in this saga, however, have received nearly equal "screen" or "page" time in The Blood Knight. Cazio, the dashing swordsman, continues to protect Anne and romantically connect with Austra, Anne’s friend and maid. Sir Neil MeqVren, battles on with his sword alongside Cazio, and often verbally against Cazio. By the end of The Briar King and The Charnel Prince, the titular characters were easy to pinpoint and determine. As a character, the Blood Knight is more of a mystery, hints are dropped along the way, giving him an air of ambiguity. Again, a prophecy is involved, but the clarity of this prophecy is held in doubt through much of the novel.
So, to say that Greg Keyes is putting together one of the premier fantasy sagas, at his point, might be obvious. But that makes it no less true. With The Blood Knight, he only reaffirms that fact, and in spades. This was one of the books I was most looking forward to reading this year, and it lived up to those expectations, perhaps exceeded them.
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© 2006 Rob H. Bedford
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