The Born Queen is the concluding (and how often do we get to say that when reviewing a fantasy novel?) book in Greg Keyes’ four-book series, Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone. And it does actually conclude the series without any sort of sly wink-wink, nod-nod to a new series rising like the undead from the killed-off plot. For that alone, he should be given lots of credit, along with actually finishing a series in a decent amount of time and space.
But of course, one hopes to aspire to get more from a book than “well, now it’s over” (how far have we fallen though that it’s almost enough to say that?). On that level, The Born Queen mostly succeeds, though not completely.
To be honest, I haven’t been completely enamored of the series as a whole. It had a killer opening, a great premise (the greatest savior of humanity may also have doomed it a few millennia ago), an underlying theme of environmentalism/conservation that I agree wholeheartedly with, several quite strongly drawn characters, and a grayness about their actions and intentions that I really, really wanted to coalesce into a great series. The problem for me was not in the building blocks of the series, but in its execution, and that same nagging issue rises again with the concluding novel.
The plot picks up from the last book and broadens it out nicely. Anne Dare (descendant of the aforementioned savior) tries to grow into her dual roles as Queen and major league magic-user (or “shine-crafter”) while she wages war with the Church and the land of Hansa. Stephen searches for Anne’s ancestor’s journal which tells how she gained the power to defeat the Skasloi — the race that had enslaved humanity for eons. Aspar tries to fight off the Sarnwood Witch’s geas which seemingly involves an attempt to birth a new Briar King — a birth that may have dire consequences for Aspar personally. Neil and Muriel head off to Hansa to try and negotiate peace. Leovigild attempts to compose a song to reseal the law of life and death. And of course, Cazio, Austra, Roger, Hespero, Fend, etc. make their appearances for good and ill and sometimes in between, while a major relatively-new character (in terms of import) makes their presence known — the Hellrune — Hansa’s magical answer to Anne.
Whew. And that isn’t all, of course. It’s a lot to balance and Keyes doesn’t always do so. The structure is the same we’ve seen in the earlier books. Multiple points of view that very often switch in the middle of some sort of cliffhanger. The multiple POVs work quite well and the transitions are smooth and effortless for the reader, though I admit to sometimes tiring of the trademark ending of each section, which usually went along the lines of “the sword descended… and all went black” or “the spear flew… and all went white.” I thought he could have been a bit more selective about those endings.
Characterizations, as before, vary in strength. Anne’s, unlike the previous book, is very well done as we see her struggle with her role as Queen and her growing magical power and watch her realize what the two roles are doing to her as a person. Cazio, Neil, and Muriel also stand out for the depth and subtlety of characterization. Others are much more pallid, such as Aspar and a few others. Then there are characters whose growth and detail we’ve thoroughly enjoyed in the past but are given some short shrift here, such as the Leovigild and Stephen. There just isn’t enough time to cover what needs to be covered with them.
The same is true for some of the plot. There is a wonderful thread of uncertainty that underlies all of what is going on: Is Anne’s increasing power a good or bad thing? Will she save or doom the world? Are her advisors (and there are plenty) working for her or against her or both depending on context? Is a new Briar King a good or bad idea? Is the Sarnwood Witch a villain or not? And so on. All of that uncertainty is great. But some of it gets resolved too quickly or sketchily, similar to how some new events are handled, such as the Black Jester’s sudden appearance or the Hellrune.
It’s rare (believe me) when I ask for more time in a fantasy series, but Keyes had set himself up with such rich material that it seems he
shortchanges it by zipping through too much too fast or too muddily.
And the need to maintain the structure sometimes works against him because the various components are not equally engaging.
There’s a lot to praise in the overall series and anybody reading fantasy should definitely read it — it’s not as good as the best or near-best (Erikson, Martin) that’s out there, but it’s better than most of the rest, despite its flaws. And of course, it’s also complete.
Recommended as a strong second-tier fantasy series, an enjoyable if flawed series to read while you wait for the next Martin or Erikson book.
Of course, if you haven’t read The Briar King yet, I highly recommend that you do. And if you do, and enjoy it, odds are you’ll follow the tale all the way through The Born Queen.
The tale is dark and complex, perhaps overly so when it comes to the tangle of prophecies, languages, and magics that the characters must unravel. And in many ways, each book in the series is weaker than its predecessor. (If anything, given the complexities involved and the many threads needing resolution, The Born Queen actually feels rushed at points.)
On the other hand, even if all that’s left is an echo of The Briar King‘s powerful song, it’s still worth listening to, and it’s been ages since I read a fantasy book so quickly, wanting to know the outcome. It’s also nice to see an epic actually completed. Recommended for those who enjoyed the first three books of the series.
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.