The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone Review

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is author Greg Keyes most famous work. I had read good reviews about this saga and finished reading it near the beginning of the year. I took some time to add a review but it's never too late. The first book, The Briar King was published in 2003 and the last one, The Born Queen in 2008. The series is ended. Without further ado, here's my take and why you should give it a try.

This series has all the elements of the conventional fantasy style writing. Good vs. evil, a princess to save, big empires, some kind of elvish people (the Sefry) and a knight without reproach to name a few. Nonetheless, the main interest in these books is in the characters and all the little details around this classic fantasy core like the importance of music given by the author and the ever present "linguistic science" use. By the way, maybe I'm slightly too harsh with the Good vs. Evil tag. The novels contains some complex characters and they make decision (and often seem to change side) base on their beliefs, not on pure evil or pure good motives.

Let's talk about the plot in general. This is epic fantasy set in a world 2300 years after the liberation of mankind from demonic Skasloi slavery by Virgenya Dare. The world described is divided between two major empires (Hansa and Crotheny) and some peripheral nations. Crotheny is the biggest of the empires and is lead by the descendants of Virgenya Dare. The royal family is in danger from within and Princess Anne will have to flee with Austra. At the same time, a young man will try to earn his knighthood by becoming the bodyguard of the queen. Meanwhile, due to strange monsters sightings, Aspar the king holter returns to his beloved forest and meets with Stephen, a young monk. In Vitellio to the south, a young dessrator is looking for fights to entertain his days. So as you can see, all these people will eventually become all part of the same struggle for the survival of the world and the race to special thrones of power.

The narrative is set with multiple PoV, most of them being the principal protagonists throughout the series. Here's the main cast:

Anne Dare is the daughter of King William of Crotheny. She is the central character and in the beginning, a little bit too classic an annoying. Anne is the little princess to whom everybody should bend the knee. Hopefully, she grows up a lot in the two years or so during which the plot evolves. Her maid and best friend, Austra should have been more developed… her PoV would have been a great addition in my opinion.

Sir Neil MeqVren is the dutiful and honourable young knight protecting the queen and her daughter. He's really really devoted but still, he is believable. Aspar White is the king holter, a veteran and the wise protector of the king forest. With Praifec Hespero (the church representative in Eslen), he's the character with the more interesting background and motivations.

The three most fascinating are Cazio Pachiomadio da Chiovattio (and his sword master Z'accato) the fencing seducer with nothing to loose, Leovigild "Leoff" Ackenzal the altruistic composer with inconceivable ideas for his musical creations and Stephen Daridge the young scholar for whom no languages is a mystery of even a challenge.

Speaking of this language thing, Greg Keyes gives it much importance throughout the books. Stephen uses his skills to decipher old prophecies, translate old map names to find lost locations or learn about the history of the inhabitants or creatures from all over the world. I think this is well used, a refreshing idea nicely incorporated in all the novels.

The magic system function with "fanes" or "sedos" which are the resting places of old saints where a priest may walk (through a "faneway") to receive special powers depending on the fane. At least, this is how it's explained at first but more is revealed (and I don't want to spoil...). This is an interesting way for the author to "control" the power he gives his protagonists. There's more to it, like the effects of music. It can move the soul (not really magic, but a king of magical effect) or even kill people (like the Black Jester used to do a long time ago, this is the kind of stuff I like). Finally, Anne and her nemesis can access a greater power from a parallel world.

The world building is well done but to some extent, the resemblance between "Vitellio" and old Italy or Spain is too obvious and the church is mostly based on old Christian clergy. However, the world is "fantastically" (I'm not sure about this word) believable and rich. At the end of the series, we have heard about most of the world in which all the storylines evolves. The Sefry race is a nice touch but some of the roaming creatures are based on real life myths (I would have liked something more original). This does not apply to the Briar King, a fascinating invention.

Technically, apart from the cover for The Blood Knight, the whole Del Rey books covers are very standard looking stuff. You know you're buying fantasy books but they're not going to catch the eye first in a library. However, the map is gorgeous, fine stuff! There's no appendix and it was not necessary. The whole series is approximately 2000 pages long.

To resume my feeling on this saga, I can say that it was a satisfying read and a worthy one for everybody who likes good old fantasy with some touches of creativeness. The pace is great (except for the fourth novel), the writing is engaging enough to keep me from putting it down, a good dose of humour is present and the sword fights are well described. I enjoyed the characters and all the original touches the author added to his classic fantasy setting. The main negative point is the quality of the last book. Here are more of my thoughts on each novel:

The story start from the general plot I talked about earlier. Anne is sent with Austra to a monastery in Vitellio to learn about dark arts to protect herself. She'll eventually meet with Cazio and Z'Accato while on flight. Aspar, after meeting with Setphen, will look for a greffyn (a kind of gryphon mixed with a cockatrice…) killing people in the forest on the count of a renegade Sefry, Fend, Aspar old nemesis. The queen in Eslen will try to hold her throne, mainly against Hespero. Neil will do his best to protect her while a member of the royal family is trying to assassinate them. The Briar King is awakening…

The first book could almost have been a stand alone novel since there's a real ending. I felt when I read it that storywise, there was something lurking behind the curtains but I think there wasn't enough to really get the feeling of a series beginning (this should not be a stopper). As I said, the cast is good. The flamboyant Cazio and his old sword master are fun to follow.

The setting exposed in this book is a good base for expanding the story in a grander scale.

Characterization............. 7.5 /10
World building............... 8 / 10
Magic system................. 7.5 / 10
Story.............................. 7.5 / 10
Writing........................... 7.5 / 10

Overall (not an average) 7.5 / 10

In the second book, we still follow the Anne/Austra/Cazio/Z'Acatto quatuor as they try to make their way back to Eslen. The Aspar/Winna (Aspar love interest)/ Stephen trio is investigating about the whereabouts of the Briar King. Meanwhile, Leoff makes his appearance. He's a great addition to the series. It's interesting to have a character and is sub plots based on music. It's probably not a first but it's imaginative.

You can feel that the plot is getting more complicated and bigger in scale. The characters are still the bread and butter of this book. The story is still shaping up well and the pace is excellent. This is my favourite of the series.

Characterization............. 8.5 /10
World building............... 8 / 10
Magic system................. 7.5 / 10
Story.............................. 8 / 10
Writing........................... 7.5 / 10

Overall (not an average) 8 / 10

To describe it simply, this book is the continuation of the previous (yeah I know, truth revealed! What a statement!). I mean that there are no new sub plots or storylines. As a follow up to The Charnel Prince, all the elements that made the last one interesting are present. This is what I expected for a transition book and it was delivered almost as well as the first two but not quite. There should have been one more book in the series like this to expand some storylines. The story evolves smoothly and I could feel that the author was in good control.

In this one, Anne realise that she'll have to take back the throne. This time, she'll have the help of Neil and Cazio. Meanwhile, Robert (Anne uncle) is forcing Leoff to create dangerous music that could destroy everybody. Aspar and Stephen are still looking (separately this time) for the real purpose of the Briar King. Hespero begins to show his cards. You can start to feel the convergence. There's should have been more spotlights for the empire of Hansa though…

Characterization............. 7 /10
World building............... 8 / 10
Magic system................. 7.5 / 10
Story.............................. 7 / 10
Writing........................... 7 / 10

Overall (not an average) 7 / 10

Anne is now going to war against almost everybody. Her mother and Neil are sent to Hansa (the northern empire) to negotiate. Aspar is now on the trace of the Briar King birthing place to restore life to the forest. Stephen and his new love interest, Zemlé (a Sefry) are now looking for the faneway of Kauron, to receive the powers of Virgenya Dare, but he'll find out something he couldn't have predicted. Cazio and Z'Accato are trying to rescue Austra. Hespero will join the fray and three almighty beings will try to gain control of three thrones of power.

I do not believe that this book represents the series particularly well. There's should have been more books to really finish this in a more impressive and complete way. The ending is present but the author got to it way too fast and it falls flat for me. The pace of the first three books is increased a lot. I felt that some of the storylines were cut short and I don't understand why. Still, in the end I had a minor sensation of closure. This book is worth its share mostly to find out what happens to the characters I came to like.

There's also an awkward situation not handled very well. Two of the main characters are seers. They can see in advance what the other one is doing. There's even someone who ask one of them if this is an infinite circle.... the explanation is not very satisfying.

Characterization............. 7 /10
World building............... 8 / 10
Magic system................. 7.5 / 10
Story.............................. 6 / 10
Writing........................... 6 / 10

Overall (not an average) 6 / 10

Series score : 7.5 / 10

Greg Keyes page (not up to date...)


Anonymous said...

You realize, I hope, that the reason many of the nations bore a resemblance to Earth nations, and the Church looked like an altered Catholic Church is that the ancestors of those nations inhabitants were brought there from Earth by the Skasloi? I mean, Keyes as much as tells you that in the prelude of the first book...

Jon Strommen Campbell said...

I would be interested if anyone can tell me what happened to Prince Cheiso - the prisoner Alis freed in book 3 (page 284). Did Keyes FORGET about this story arch?!?

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