The trouble with Green Rider (or, well, the major trouble with Green Rider) is that it all just feels a bit silly. This may be a bit of a chuckle for some of you as, let’s face it, our entire genre could be and is regarded as rather silly what with the Halflings and dragons and so on, but the trick we demand of fantasy authors most of the time is that they either embrace that silliness in a sort of ironic, look-I’m-clever-anyway fashion or they transcend it to make what should be silly deadly serious and gripping. Kristen Britain, unfortunately, has a prose and organizational style that never lets the reader forget just how incredibly silly her narrative actually is.
This is rather unfortunate as the plot isn’t actually too bad. The style gets in the way a bit here too, and I can easily see how distracted or skimming readers could lose the narrative threads and start mistaking frenetic motion for plain incomprehensibility, but particularly for a first novel it hangs together fairly well. The schoolgirl Karigan meets a Green Rider (king’s messenger) in the woods. He asks her to deliver his message to the king as, whoops, he’s dead. Off goes Karigan to deliver the message and save the day, with lots of obstacles in her way and lots of danger awaiting even when she arrives at her destination.
Not really a bad premise, aside from the obviously derivative “I was walking through the woods one day WHEN…” trope that’s been kicking around since Robin Hood was getting popular. In fact, yes, the story is fairly derivative; let’s get that out of the way. There’s nothing here that a reasonably well-read fantasy reader won’t have seen before: dark magic from an old world rising, plots against a wise and benevolent king by his scheming brother, supersmart horses, a touch of desssstinnyyyyy…. yes, definitely derivative and old-school, but I can’t really mark it down too much for that. These tropes are the bread and butter of fantasy, and my ranking is mainly due to the way they were handled this time around, which brings us back to Ms. Britain’s style.
The prose is fairly lackluster, and ironically it seems to dip in quality whenever we reach a point where extra effort should be necessary. I get the feeling that Britain is just trying too hard some of the time, which is one of the regrettable pitfalls the first-time novelist can too easily fall into. Her opening hook, involving a dark wizard trying to create a breach in the giant wall that guards the realms of men from the magic and evil beyond (where was Jon Snow while this was going on, we wonder) is clearly meant to be threatening and ominous but just comes off as goofy and over-the-top. This pattern recurs whenever any major action begins, which is a real problem in a text where there’s rarely more than five pages of downtime between the slashing and riding and magical arrows flying. It’s a shame, as Karigan isn’t really such a bad heroine, nor is the premise poorly conceived. It’s just that this style illuminates rather than obscures all the unlikely coincidences of the text (and, admittedly, Britain does herself a few too many favors on that front as well: secondary characters — yes, sigh, especially the attractive male ones — have that debilitating disease I like to call Protagonist Mania, falling over themselves in adoration of Karigan for no discernible reason, even on an acquaintance of less than two minutes).
I do have some good news, however, in that if you can tough out some of these elements (this is actually my second run at Green Rider: the first time I got disgusted at around the point of the Tom Bombadil-esque stylistic detour to the Berry sisters’ house and gave up) you’ll probably find that the style becomes less of an issue as you progress and you might even start enjoying yourself a bit once you’ve acclimated. Yes, it’s still derivative, and yes, you’ll probably see every twist coming a mile off, but at that point it really is just a popcorn action fantasy with a better protagonist than most and LOTS of exciting chase sequences. As I said above, the plot really isn’t terrible, so what we come back to is that Green Rider is in many ways representative of the negative stereotypes too often leveled at the fantasy genre: that it plays with the same elements over and over, and that it’s silly. True enough, and those are real problems here, but in many respects, whether we’re guilty over it or not, a lot of us got into fantasy on just such works, and ultimately Green Rider is a decent enough novel that — having completed it at last — I’m actually considering finding the sequel, something I never would have considered a year ago when I first gave up. I have a feeling (at least I hope) that Britain’s prose may smooth out with more practice, and there’s really nothing wrong with a bit of over-the-top swashbuckling. Though it remains a flawed book, I have to give Green Rider a tentative thumbs-up.