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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Briar King by Greg Keyes

Why did I pick this book up?  It was a series, plain and simple.  I saw that there were at least six novels by Keyes on the shelf.  Usually a good sign of staying power.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, anything that's reached a certain level of syndication has to have some aspect of quality.  This does mean that I'm liable to miss some good fiction, so please go ahead and point them out if I do.  I'm open to suggestion.  But I will say this.  When I find a fantasy realm I love--I want to live in it.  I want to immerse myself in it.  A phenomenal one book novel doesn't really allow for this, not because of any lack of quality, simply a lack of words.

But not all books made into series catch my interest.  When I was a teenager I read almost the entire DragonLance series.  I was in love with the characters established by Weiss and Hickman.  When those characters were co-opted by new authors, they still lived in my mind.  The quality was less true, and the Fifth of the Fantasy Five always fell short, but junkies will live on fumes when that's all they can get.

Let's get to it:

Characters:  The lead character in this novel is a gruff, ranger type, with a problem with commitment.  I can't say I really liked him, even when he softened up a bit and admitted that he cared for the leading lady.  One of the nice things about "The Coming of Age" cliche is that it allows a relatively bland character to grow over time.  But our Ranger, was pretty set in his ways.  Hardbitten characters can be fascinating, I was willing to give him a try.  He did seem to grow over the course of the book--but then again, I almost felt that he grew too quickly.  Unbelievably.  I could tell that Keyes was trying to give the characters depth.  None of them were simple, each had complicated motives for their actions.  But sometimes complex motivations aren't enough to create deep characters.  An empathic connection must be drawn to the reader.  And the only character I began to feel that connection with was killed off by the end of the book.

Cliche:  There isn't a central cliche to draw on.  The Briar King is one of those newer fantasy type novels that relies on a political environment that is supposed to modernize and enliven the drama.  One of the more interesting characters is the King, who has a mistress and an evil brother.  The evil brother is a cliche, and his character's motivations appear to be complex, but his evil is also of the benal sort.  One cliche the Briar King most definitely does NOT use, is a central villain.  There were many characters, in many dramas, and it wasn't clear, even by the end of the first novel who the real villain was.  That's not necessarily a problem, but leaving your reader confused is completely different from leaving your reader with compelling mysteries to contemplate.

Scope:  The Briar King's scope is difficult to ascertain.  There is evidence of a largish kingdom, with allies and opponents that are on the brink of war.  I like politics, but I've only really ever found one or two authors who do a good job of creating fantasy worlds with meaningful political disputes.  It's very easy to create nations.  It's very easy create wars and borders.  But only a really terrific writer can make those disputes come alive.  George R.R. Martin did a really great job with this in the Fire and Ice Series, magic and mystery come second in that world.  In The Briar King there's evidence of an ancient enemy, and other races, but the references to these mysteries are clumsy at best.  A personal pet peeve of mine is creating new races that look identical to races that exist in the minds of fantasy readers already.  What's the point?  An elf is an elf is an elf.  Calling him a Scregyar doesn't change the fact that he's an elf.  What are elves?  Thin, longlived, with point ears, and an affinity with nature.  That hasn't changed since Tolkien, nor has the archetype.  It's grown, it's contracted, but it remains essentially the same.  To be sure--the fantasy greats can create new races with impunity.  But amateurs and new authors have to be really careful.  Caveat:  I am in no way qualified to call Keyes an amateur.  My only credential is I read a lot and I know what I like.

Magic:  I'm not really clear what, if anything the magical system in The Briar King is, the ancient enemy, the Briar King, is sort of cool.  I mean the concept of a malignant force of nature is relatively unused in fantasy novels.  Usually the operative cliche is urbanization v. nature.  Ents have a long history in contemporary fantasy of being creatures of good intent, shepards of the forest.  Although, thinking back, the Ents were the good equivalent of the nasties who dwelt in the Fangorn forest of Middle Earth.  It reminds me of the Heidegger's concept of The Black Forest.  It's an old mythic concept that harkens back to an age that is completely inconceivable to the modern reader, a time when towns and cities were literally swallowed whole by vast swathes of dark wilderness.  The only thing man needs shelter from now is the cold, and other men--another perfect allegory for the Fire and Ice series.  In the first book of The Briar King, a priest like character shows a certain penchant for magical activities, but the system though described, isn't fleshed out entirely.  If the character were less weak and idiotic, I may have been intrigued enough to learn more about him in the next book.

Theme:  I could detect very little theme in this book, which was probably the ultimate reason for why I was turned off of the series.  Maybe Keyes hits his stride in the next book, but is it worth another inch on my crowded bookshelves, meh.  There are motifs of political intrigue, war with neighboring countries, betrayal and lust, good nature v. evil nature.  But to tell you the truth, no single one of those really commands the whole novel.  Compare that with a book like The Black Company, by Glen Cook.  I'm desperate to buy the next book--but it's 16 bucks!

Overall, I wasn't so interested in Keyes.  I'd like to give him another try.  The prolific nature of his works indicates that I'm missing something.  But I can't be bothered.  I don't want just another fantasy world, just another sword fight, or love affair.  I need to get sucked in like a dark whirlpool.  And despite having a great title, The Briar King, just didn't suck me.


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