The Princess Grows Up
By Cheryl Morgan
Somewhere or other the fates have been conspiring against Greg Keyes. Firstly I didnít have time to read The Blood Knight for last issue. And then, when I finally got round to reading the book, I went and lost it. Let this be a lesson to you. Never leave a book lying around at a convention. Someone will pick it up. I wasnít sure that I had the nerve to ask Del Rey for a new copy, and in any case Iíd be rushing off to the UK as soon as I got back from WisCon. Fortunately Stef at Tor UK came to my rescue and I was able to finish reading the book. This is a good thing, because the Kingdoms of Thorne and Bone series is getting better and better with each volume.
So what exactly makes a good series of Big Fat Fantasy books? Why is what Keyes does good and the endless sausage of extruded, fabricated fantasy product pumped out by lesser authors not good? There are many things involved. In my review of The Charnel Prince I focused on the world-building. Keyes has done a lot of research into a wide range of different aspects of his world. It all seems to hang together in a coherent fashion. This is a very good start.
In addition he doesnít take the thing too seriously. Heís not above poking fun at the whole idea of heroic fantasy when the mood takes him (and, of course, when he doesnít risk damaging the mood of the book). Here poor young Cazio worries about his role in the story. How is someone who, in his own humble estimation, is one of the worldís best swordsmen, to earn his way amongst all this magical nonsense?
Now Anne had a knight with a magic sword, a woodsman who could drill an arrow through a pigeon at six miles, and a priest who could hear twelve leagues in every direction. Winna didnít have any arcane abilities that he could see, but he wouldnít be entirely surprised if she suddenly began calling the animals, imploring them to fight at her side.
"See?" says Keyes, "I know what should happen in Formula Fantasy, but Iím not going to do it."
Talking of Formula Fantasy, an essential element of it is that the Lost Prince (or in this case Princess) is restored to the throne. This is generally a simple process involving the slaughter of vast legions of orcs (who are evil and therefore deserve to die) and disposing of the Dark Lord (who is fated to be disposed of, which helps a lot). Anne Dare is also apparently fated to regain her fatherís throne, but just because it is fated it doesnít mean to say that it is going to be easy. First Anne needs to avoid her uncleís agents, who will doubtless kill her if they can. Then she has to raise an army. And finally she has to lead it against the capital, subduing any enemy castles she might pass along the way. All of which involves killing people who ought to be her subjects.
The old songs also didnít talk much about women throwing their children over the walls in an insane attempt to save them from the flames or about the smell of a hundred dead men as the morning frost began to thaw. Or how a man could have a spear all the way through him and appear not to feel it, keep talking as if nothing were wrong, right up until the moment his eyes lost sight and his lips went lazy.
Iíve noted before that Keyes is relatively safe as fantasists go. He doesnít have George R.R. Martinís habit of killing off leading characters willy nilly. Nor does he have Steve Eriksonís habit of killing off everyone in sight, sometimes several times over. But that doesnít mean that he tries to pretend that mediaeval warfare doesnít hurt anyone.
Next up we have the Dark Lord. Or rather we donít. In The Briar King it seemed fairly clear that the malevolent nature spirit was the primary villain of the series. By The Blood Knight we are pretty sure that he is on Anneís side, if not on the side of humanity as a whole. Praifec Hespero and his minions in the Church are clearly a bad lot, but probably only because they are hoping to use the darkness that is stirring for their own ends. Well, you know what priests are like: give them a chance at eternal life and they are only too keen to sacrifice a baby or two to that end. The Skasloi have been portrayed as the ultimate (and vanquished) evil since the start, but in The Blood Knight we get enough information to leave us unsure of their role in the coming conflict against, well, who knows? Anne surely doesnít, and nor do we.
The important point here is that none of the "bad" characters in the series are bad for the sake of being bad. They are bad because they have aims and ambitions that are contrary to those of the heroes. Sometimes, like the followers of the Briar King, their philosophy is a little suspect, but they believe it firmly nonetheless.
"Life is always coming and going," she said, "if you watch. Always something being born, always something dying. In the spring more is being born; in late autumn more is dying. Death is more natural than life. The bones of the world are death."
Stephenís throat tightened. "Children shouldnít talk like that," he said.
"Children know these things," she said. "Itís only adults that teach us that a flower is more beautiful than a rotting dog."
For me, one of the most important things in any book is that the reader should be kept guessing. With Formula Fantasy, because it is escapist literature, the whole point is that the reader should be able to guess what will happen next, and feel safe in that knowledge. In Keyesí books, even though you have a pretty good idea that the major characters will come through it all safely, you are never quite certain what will happen. And, like when reading a Gene Wolfe novel, you are sometimes left with the nagging feeling that you read something very important earlier in the book/series and didnít recognize it at the time.
Although The Blood Knight is book three in the series, it does not appear to be the end. There is a lot more to be discovered yet. As I mentioned above, we still donít have much idea who the actual bad guys are (if indeed there are any). I, for one, would also like to know why Anneís most famous ancestor appears to be a famous character out of American history. So, whenís the next book due?