The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series by Greg Keyes

The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone

My guilty literary pleasure is epic fantasy.  The problem is that a lot of the new fantasy being written is not very good.  With the rise in interest in fantasy fueled by recent trends in movies and television I think a lot of the resulting fiction is somewhat rushed and mediocre.  So when I started craving a high fantasy adventure after a year of not reading any, I had almost decided just to re-read an old favorite instead of risking something new and unknown.  Then I got a recommendation for this series (also known as The Briar King series) and I decided to give it a shot.

Overall, I think the series is a success.  It is comprised of four books:  The Briar King, The Charnel Prince, The Blood Knight and The Born Queen (and that’s it!  the series is complete!  no waiting around for years for the next book…ahem….George R. R. Martin….).  And since all four books are now available in mass market paperback, the monetary risk is relatively low.

Though it does follow some basic formulas found in epic fantasy, namely main characters gradually discovering and coming to terms with great power and responsibility, an unidentified and seemingly undefeatable evil, political intrigue and quests to save the world, the series has a few traits that help to set it apart.  Keyes builds a complex and rich history and diversity of language that he uses throughout the books.  There are some identifiable traits in the languages used in the different parts of his fictional world that correspond with German, Italian, Latin, Gaelic and Old English — just enough to help the reader keep them separate and to create consistent cultures within the story, both current and historical.  Also, I found the series to be unusually dark and foreboding.  The first book was so creepy, in fact, I had to sleep with the light on for a couple of nights.  Once the evil became a little more concrete it lost some of its scariness.  But perhaps the most unique aspect of the series is the way in which Keyes incorporates a musical element.  There is a composer character introduced in the second book who rediscovers the lost (and outlawed) art of weaving magic into music.  The descriptions of the compositions are very detailed and interesting, and the results of the composer’s work within the story are very exciting.

There is a subtle tie-in to American history that was a little weird at first (sometimes real-world references in fantasy novels can spoil the story) but it is so minor and curious that I didn’t mind it, and it wasn’t until the last book that it was (briefly) explained. 

I’m not going to attempt to write a plot synopsis since it’s far too complex and I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the series has a well-developed, fleshed out storyline.  Even though the first book was slightly predictable and the last book became harried and chaotic, overall the plot and characters were original enough to be successful.  I almost got the sense from the last book that there was a hurry to get it done.  It could’ve easily been made into two books and the plot was turning in on itself so much at the end that sometimes it was hard to keep things straight.

I noticed a few editorial errors, which always bother me.  Specifically, there was a scene in the third book in which every person present was described or in some way accounted for but a page later an additional (previously absent) character pipes in with a comment.  I went back to the beginning of the chapter to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.  It was very distracting and really destroys the flow of a story when something like that isn’t caught.

Despite its flaws, I think the series is worth reading for those fans of epic fantasy.  I enjoyed it and it thoroughly satisfied my cravings for the genre…at least until next year!

The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series is available at noteBooks in mass market paperback.  Each book is priced at $7.99.