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.
Ride, Greenie, ride!
Karigan G’ladheon, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, has been kicked out of school because she beat up the son of a nobleman. On her way home she crosses paths with a Green Rider, one of King Zachary’s messengers. The Rider has two black arrows in his back, but before he dies he coerces Karigan into promising to take a sealed message to the king. Reluctantly, Karigan sets out to fulfill her vow. Along the way she meets allies and enemies, fights battles with creatures out of nightmare, makes friends with a horse, and learns a bit about magic, and herself, too.
For years I’ve been planning to read Kristen Britain’s Green Rider, which was first published in 1998. I finally decided to take the plunge into this big fantasy epic when Penguin released it in audio a few weeks ago. Pleased with the story and the audio performance, I listened to the entire book in just a couple of days. Penguin Audio’s version of Green Rider is read by Ellen Archer, who was new for me. She has a pleasant voice and had no problem with the diversity and range of male and female voices in Green Rider. She is a good narrator for this series.
The world of GREEN RIDER feels real. In this first story we learn about some of its history, politics, myths, legendary heroes, and games. This is all done naturally and without extensive infodumps. The characters, too, are mostly well done, though the villains tend to be shallow and overtly evil. Karigan is not always likeable, but she’s a willful and spunky heroine who I hope will become less aloof as the series goes on. Karigan is supported by several characters that we can’t help but like, such as her father, the batty Berry sisters and their invisible servants, a few other Riders, and King Zachary himself. Oh, and the horse!
Britain creates a nice balance of tension and leisure in Green Rider. Though murder, treachery, and political intrigue abound, there are several sweet times, too. I foresaw many of the plot’s “surprises,” and the end of the magical battle at the climax of the novel was a bit silly, but that didn’t bother me. Mostly I enjoyed riding with Karigan and living in her world for a time. I will be happy to read book two, First Rider’s Call.
Green Rider is a nice choice if you’re in the mood for a traditional fantasy epic with some familiar elements used in a refreshing, but not revolutionary, way. Those who like Mercedes Lackey’s VALDEMAR series will be especially pleased.
There is much good in this first novel and, unfortunately, much that’s not so good — thus the 3 star rating.
The good first: Kristen Britain writes well and creates a likeable, if not complex and well-developed, heroine who should appeal strongly to young female readers. Britain also has a nice eye for imagery, the most powerful being the gray-clad rider and his sinister pairs of black arrows. And she, on the whole, creates a clean, refreshing fantasy setting. These traits will serve her well if and when she publishes again …
And now the bad: As can be forgiven in a first novel, the plot often becomes a mess, either bogging down or running haywire. The former occurs near the beginning with the whole, weird episode with Miss Bayberry and Miss Bunchberry, whose presence simply throws the otherwise late-medieval setting entirely out of alignment by stuffing it with things Victorian. The latter occurs, as might be expected, at the climax, where KB conducts something of a gambit with a super-magical chess game, the foundation for which is not entirely laid. A strong sense of resolution is also lacking.
That said, Green Rider is readable and does draw you in nicely at times. While Kristen Britain’s work by no means approaches that of, e.g., Robin Hobb’s, it has potential. Writing is a long ride, as Kristen Britain (referring to herself as a “Green Writer”) might realize. Time will tell what kind of journey this writer takes.