Published by Del Rey
After five years and at the conclusion of the fourth and final book of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone saga, Greg Keyes has done something not many of his peers have been able to do. Set out what they intended to do and finish a series in a given amount of time and in a given amount of volumes. So, having completed that technical goal, how did Greg fare in terms of the storytelling, plot, etc – all the stuff between the covers? Very impressively, to say the least.
The Blood Knight, and quite frankly all three books in the series, set up all the dominoes that Greg was set to knock down in this final installment. With each title of this series, Greg gave a hint as to who a focal and pivotal character would be. Though some of the series readers may have been surprised to realize who the Blood Knight came to be, little doubt remained as to the identity of the titular Born Queen, or rather one of the identities. Clearly, this book builds on knowledge of the three prior novels in the quartet and I wouldn’t suggest reading this novel without having read those novels. That said, here’s a very brief summary: the Briar King is dead, and as a result monsters are on the loose in the King’s Forest and elsewhere. The Charnel Prince is walking and plotting because the law of death has been broken. The Blood Knight is revealed, taking a foothold in the King’s Forest, where monsters just may be under his control. All of this culminates in a war between Eslen and the Church, with magic powers growing and returning unchecked. That’s where we are as The Born Queen begins.
As with the previous entries in the series, Greg provides a rotating cast of "protagonists," POV characters whose side of the story is told in various third-person narrative chapters. The comparison then, as it often is, is inevitable – this guy writes George R. R. Martin-lite. This label is not really fair to either writer, since aside from some of the same set dressings and trappings, their series and writing is quite different. This review will limit the Martin comparison to here, because Greg has done something different with his story in many respects and he has done it very well. Greg’s story is more about the world at large and the changes occurring due to misuse of magic and for lack of better term, not respecting the earth itself.
Ostensibly, Anne Dare takes the role of the Born Queen, though some may say it is not entirely her own. Indeed, the entire saga rests on her shoulders and the turnaround, as I mentioned in my review of The Blood Knight, of her character is quite impressive. It is an stirring turn of character in the sense that she matures, grows into, and accepts a role she didn’t want, while also maintaining a semblance of who she was prior to this turn. The fate of the world rests on Anne’s shoulders, and as the world begins to stress, so does Anne. Keyes played out her scenes very logically and believably, in terms of the mental arguments and platitudes one tells one (or might) oneself as they are ushering in the end of the world.
While a great deal of this world weight is on Anne’s shoulders, the "rotating protagonists" from previous volumes have their own worldly burdens to share: Aspar White holds some of this burden, as do musician Leovigild Ackenzal who is trying to cope with the disastrous affects of the song he composed; Stephen Darige in his search for the journals of legendary Virgenya Dare; Neil MeqVren in his charge to protect the Queen Mother, Anne’s mother Muriel; and dashing swordsman Cazio as he tries to shepherd and protect Anne’s best friend Austra. Greg also manages to, within the context of the story, subtly blur the alliances these characters held with each other and themselves compared to previous thee volumes. These characters are very fleshed out and could likely support an entire novel themselves; Keyes level of characterization and storyline for each is so strong. On the other, these great characters truly support the theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Not satisfied to rest on the characters from previous volumes, Keyes does one better. He takes the hints of the history of the world only glimpsed in the previous volumes and brings them more into the light. One example of this is the hinted ghost of Virgenya Dare. The other is a character many fans of the series (Link to Greg Keyes Forum) have wished to learn more about from Greg – the Black Jester. Hinted at as an insane Emperor in the past of Crotheny, the Jester comes onto the pages full of life and gusto in The Born Queen, in what could be considered an unexpected fashion when compared to characters and events depicted in earlier volumes of the saga.
Like Anne, each character is changed in their own manner as a result of the war and free flowing magic. Some, like Neil, bear physical scars while others, like Stephen, bear psychological/soul-reaching scars. In this sense, Greg manages to interweave all of the plot and character threads together very neatly. If anything, some might say too neatly. Not all the characters survive; after all, much of the novel deals with war and an unleashing of magic that can potentially destroy the world. I was surprised by one death; at least in how it happened.
The primary action story begun in The Briar King took place in Eslen, so does the conclusion of The Born Queen, and the entire series itself. The climax was incredibly paced and wrought, proving difficult to really stop reading. I found it to be breathtaking and one of the more expertly crafted and executed series culminations. A welcome epilogue brought full closure to the story of these characters, and ultimately a fitting wrapping up of all loose ends.
The Born Queen is one of the strongest concluding volumes to a multi-volume series and the series itself is a perfect example of Epic Fantasy done well. Though I said the comparison to Martin would be contained only in one paragraph above, I’ll bring it up again. I’m a fan of both writers and their respective secondary worlds/series. Keyes started and finished his in the time that Martin started and made it to the fourth volume of his, this is merely fact. Though Greg Keyes stayed more in line with traditional Epic Fantasy (Tolkien, Donaldson), whereas writers like Scott Bakker and Erikson turned Epic Fantasy on its ass (to positive effect) Keyes’ accomplishment in finishing The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is no less impressive. I’ve been following the series even before The Briar King was published and there are few writers who have left me so completely satisfied with what they’ve done. Greg Keyes is one of them and The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is one of the great fantasy sagas of the early 21st Century.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford