The Briar King: A dark rose among thorns

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Greg Keyes The Briar KingThe Briar King by Greg Keyes

The Briar King is the first novel in the (planned) fantasy quartet, Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone by Greg Keyes. The gist of my review is this: The Briar King is perhaps the first wonderful fantasy book of the 21st century and worthy of a place beside A Game of Thrones (George Martin) and Assassin’s Apprentice (Robin Hobb) on your shelf reserved for engaging, well-written, mature, contemporary fantasy. It is, in a word, a keeper.

The Briar King opens with one of (if not the) best preludes in fantasy, which raises the overshadowing concept for the saga: a warrior-queen leads an army of enslaved humans in the storming of their demonic masters’ citadel, only to learn that the means of their victory may have set in motion the doom of the world. In the story itself, set over 2,000 years later, the first signs of this doom begin to appear in the kingdom of Crotheny. The mythical Briar King, doom’s harbinger, is said to be waking from his ancient slumber, even as the wars and intrigues of the human nations carry on, seemingly unaware…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI’ve been deliberately vague about the actual story and principal characters so as to let the book speak for itself. I read a good deal of fantasy fiction (and write it as well), and I’m pleased to say that this is one of the best I’ve read in recent memory. Greg Keyes writes in clear, often artful prose and has a true gift not only for world-building (and the research that surely underlies it) but also for showing the world and its wonders and horrors vividly without over-description or telling. (Or at least, when he must tell, he does it in a plausible, often inconspicuous manner.) The dialogue is crisp and spiced with wit and various languages; the characters are, for the most part, realistic and distinct. The plot is well-balanced and builds to a page-turning crescendo. If I have a quibble, it’s that not enough of ancient history and mysteries are revealed to make the climax wholly comprehensible. That is, the hook for the next book is a bit heavily baited, but it’s bait that I’ll bite on nonetheless.

With the medieval/”British” nature of Crotheny and the chapter-by-chapter shifts in character viewpoint, The Briar King will indeed draw comparisons to A Game of Thrones. However, they should mainly be favorable comparisons; moreover, The Briar King develops a different “feel” or texture as it progresses — the lands of Westeros didn’t spring to mind as I read on.

The bottom line: I read this book free of charge from the public library; I’ve since ordered it because I’d like a copy for my fantasy shelf and, more importantly, because Keyes deserves our support and encouragement. This book helped me remember what this genre can be.

Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone — (2002-2008) Publisher: Two thousand years ago, the Born Queen defeated the Skasloi lords, freeing humans from the bitter yoke of slavery. But now monstrous creatures roam the land — and destinies become inextricably entangled in a drama of power and seduction. The king’s woodsman, a rebellious girl, a young priest, a roguish adventurer, and a young man made suddenly into a knight — all face malevolent forces that shake the foundations of the kingdom, even as the Briar King, legendary harbinger of death, awakens from his slumber. At the heart of this many-layered tale is Anne Dare, youngest daughter of the royal family… upon whom the fate of her world may depend.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGreg Keyes Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone: The Briar King, The Charnal Prince, The Blood Knight, The Born QueenGreg Keyes Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone: The Briar King, The Charnal Prince, The Blood Knight, The Born QueenGreg Keyes Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone: The Briar King, The Charnal Prince, The Blood Knight, The Born Queen


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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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