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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Greg Keyes: The Briar King

This book reminded me somewhat of George R. R. Martin's recent massive series, including A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows. I stopped reading that series for two reasons: There was too much evil in it, and the books were too long. However, they were, as far as I got, well crafted sword and sorcery fantasy.

I'm not going to give away the plot, but will mention some features.

The Briar King has lots of evil in it, but some good. There are a few characters that exhibit loyalty and goodness, and they don't completely lose to the bad characters. There is worship, of the supernatural, and the supernatural is taken for real by the characters, although I didn't see much evidence of good in their deities, or spirits. At the end, there is vengeance taken.

The characters that were still around at the end of the book (quite a few weren't) and that I was interested in include Aspar White, a forester who has an unselfish love for the emperor's forest, Winna, a woman half his age who is deeply in love with Aspar, and follows him, Muriele, the emperor's wife, Anne, the emperor's teen-aged daughter, Stephen Darige, a young monk who wants to serve the church sincerely, and Neil MeqVren, a young knight who has devoted himself unselfishly to serving as Muriele's protector.

As in the case of the last name mentioned, Keyes isn't afraid to use some rather unusual names, for things and people. There is a greffyn or two, not a griffin, for example. It's Vergenya, not Virginia. I'm not clear as to why he has done this.

There is a church, with orders of both males and females, something like monks and nuns, but not a lot. Some of these seem to be sincere and good. Many don't, and the church is deeply involved in politics, and some of the monks are involved in evil deeds. There is some sincere worship, notably when Neil prays that he be a true knight. There are various supernatural elements in the book, including being able to communicate with the dead.

Virginia Dare, of American colonial history, is part of the history of the people in the book. I didn't really understand why, but she is mentioned a few times, and one royal line is the Dares. There is nothing in the book that particularly identifies North American geography, or history, other than that, that I could find.

There is a second humanoid species, the sefry, who appear to be albinos, and have special understanding of wild nature, and of the spirit world.

The Briar King appears only peripherally. He, or it, seems to be a nature spirit of some sort, wanting to take vengeance for misuse of the forest.

As I indicated above, the leading characters are not all nobility. I was struck by this passage:

Most people in this kingdom would kill to live your life, to enjoy the privilege you hold. You will never know hunger, or thirst, or lack for clothing and shelter. You will never suffer the slightest tiny boil without that the finest physician in the land spends his hours easing the pain and healing you. You are indulged, spoiled, and pampered. And you do not appreciate it in the least. And here, Anne, is the price you pay for your privilege: responsibility. (J. Gregory Keyes, The Briar King: The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone. New York: Ballentine Books, 2003, p. 248. Spoken by Muriele to her daughter, Anne. Emphasis in original.)

I requested the second book in the series from the library because I found that I wanted to know what happens. Keyes will probably introduce a few more in the next book.


Elliot said...

I also stopped reading Martin's series. Partly because I found the writing very unsatisfying. He lists off a great many names and places in an effort to create the sense of a real world with a real history, but he rarely fleshed any of them out, and they remained cardboard cut-outs for me. I suspect it might stem from his world-view. Tolkien believed that the world was created and valued by a God who knew every part of it, and so his 'sub-creation' was crafted with painstaking care. Martin is (I believe) an atheist for whom history is just a meaningless blur - 'ignorant armies clashing in the night.'

And I was also bothered by the amount of utterly gratuitious violence and graphic sex in it. I'm not too picky but it wasn't in there for any good purpose.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. I agree with most of your assessment of Martin (I found some of his characters pretty well fleshed out) especially the violence, and your suspicion of his world-view.