Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Born Queen by Greg Keyes

I've been a big supporter of Greg Keyes's "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" series from the beginning -- I bought the first book, The Briar King, as a Selection at my old job, and burbled about it thusly:
Six years ago, I introduced a fantasy novel to the SFBC by saying “If you love good fantasy, you owe it to yourself to read this book.” I don’t say that kind of thing lightly, but I said it about A Game of Thrones, and I’m thrilled to say it again about The Briar King: this is a book you have to read if you like sweeping fantasy.
Now, I have to admit, here, that I thought Keyes's previous series, "The Age of Unreason," went somewhat off the rails as it went on, after a brilliant first volume (Newton's Cannon). So I was a bit apprehensive that the same thing might happen to "Kingdoms:" that it might lose focus on the characters that made the first book so impressive and wander away from its strengths.

But "Kingdoms" is now complete, so I can say, definitively, that didn't happen at all. Keyes shows a real brilliance for keeping his story moving in Born Queen, shuffling between about half-a-dozen viewpoint characters but cutting out all the fat -- scenes are precise, only as long as they need to be, and they get shorter and tighter as the book goes on. It's wonderful to see a writer who really understands how to control tension and keep the stakes high. The Born Queen is an epic fantasy novel that's just the right size, not bloated like so many of its competitors. (In fact, I expect many readers will wish it was substantially longer -- but that's the essence of entertainment: leaving the audience wanting more.)

A plot summary probably won't make much sense to people who haven't read the earlier books, and could give away plot-points for those in the middle of those books. So I'll skip lightly: a certain viewpoint character is now in power, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Another one of the viewpoint characters also comes into power -- and, in both cases, I'm speaking in a fantasy sense more than as in a political one -- with unexpected, and not positive, results. Other than that, it starts out about as you'd expect the last book in a multiple-viewpoint fantasy series to do: the major characters are scattered, doing separate things. I was about to throw in their names, but it always annoyed me, back at the clubs, when the descriptive copy for late books in fantasy series would say things like "Llad'nafar must re-invoke the Stone of Forgetting, while the Duke of Dork races to save the life of the fair Melililiii, beset by Orcs in the Darken Forest." So I'll avoid that part. The cast here is made up of the people who survived the previous books -- you know, by now, who they are.

If you've read the earlier books: The Born Queen finishes up the series with a bang, and without any filler. It starts at a brisk walk, and picks up speed as the book goes on.

If you haven't read the earlier books: for god's sake, don't start here. But the series is now completely, and excellently complete, so go grab a copy of The Briar King and get ready for something special.

Either way, this is one of the better epic fantasy series out there. Even more, it was planned for four books, and was completed in four books, without bloat or fuss. Keyes is a damn good writer, and an even better storyteller; he knows how to tell the story he set out to tell, without getting distracted by other things. That should be celebrated, in our era particularly.


Anonymous said...

Okay, for calibration purposes, what did you think of his Waterborn duology?

Paul D said...

I'll be honest, I wasn't thrilled with this, I thought it was weaker than the previous 3 books. The characters never really connect with each other, and when it comes to major developments, I thought he kept taking the easy way out.

I also thought that one of the strengths of this series, like Martin, was that the supernatural, while present, never takes over. I thought that it took over in this book.

RobB said...

Ok Andrew, I was going to read it soon anyway, but I think you got me even more excited to jump into The Born Queen.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Mike: I haven't read the Waterborn books, so I can't say.

Paul: I thought the supernatural was more central to this series than it has been to Martin's so far -- the world we see was created by the forces Ginny Dare harnessed during the revolt, and the magic of the faneways has been important right along. There is an escalation in Born Queen, but I thought it worked -- we've already known that the core of this crisis is supernatural, so the solution has to be equally supernatural.

(I was a bit surprised at how many people survived the ending, and how well -- I think you're hinting at that in your first paragraph. But I didn't consider it a cheat.)

Paul D said...

I felt kind of weird coming on your blog and disagreeing with you, but oh well... You're right in that I was surprised at the lack of deaths - I thought it translated into a lack of consequences.

Overall I thought it was okay, but also the weakest of the series.

BobN said...

Andrew - your original recommendation at SFBC was right on: the Briar King was one of the best high fantasy novels I've read. It was so good, in fact, that it raised expectations for the series that, IMHO, Keyes was not able to meet. The second book was nearly as good as The Briar King, but book three just went nowhere. I couldn't help but feel Keyes had signed for a 4 book contract, and too late realized it was only a trilogy after all. I'm being generous, though, as it's probably just a case of milking the series for all it's worth. Anyway, the bad taste Book 3 (can't remember the name) left in my mouth, plus the lukewarm reviews (such as yours) makes me doubt I'll be picking up The Born Queen. There's too many other great books out there waiting!

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