The High King’s Tomb by Kristen Britain
From early on in The High King’s Tomb (2007), alarm bells started going off in my head. It doesn’t take very long, if you’ve read the other two books (and you should have), to realize that a “grab the reader by the throat” event is conspicuously absent from the beginning of the story. There’s one in the first book, there’s one in the second book, but The High King’s Tomb starts out on a noticeably meandering path.
And it continues to meander, without a great deal of urgency, for a long time. A lot of events happen, some of them interesting in relation to the world Britain has created, but overall none of them seem hugely relevant to solving the tensions of the main plot arc. In fact, they just seem to add in a bunch of new tensions without solving any old ones. Uh oh.
It takes a long time for the reader to understand why this book is called The High King’s Tomb. By then, a lot of the elements of the book are coming together and making more sense for the plot of this book, but no amount of smoke and mirrors can distract the reader from the fact that it didn’t really offer any resolution on the plot of the series as a whole. With almost 700 pages, more should have been resolved. I reiterate: Uh oh.
Kristen Britain has always gotten away with certain things (like Deus Ex Machina solutions) in part due to the strength of her characters. This time I’m not sure it’ll be enough to pull some readers through. Main character Karigan mostly annoys me in this book. She doesn’t get off on a good foot, with her diatribe about brothels early on. Pages of inner monologue about how wrong it is to sell your body, you should only be with the one you love, blah blah blah, oh! oh! oh! how terrible… I want to scream. Eventually I started to feel like Britain is trying way too hard to keep Karigan from being perfect that she’s sliding towards backwards and unlikeable instead.
Other returning characters are a mixed bag. Estora, who had struck me in the previous books as being a strong, elegant young woman with a lot of bravery, hits romance heroine levels of stupidity in this books. She redeems herself a little by realizing that she’s being stupid, but her demeanor here just seems like an excuse to make the book’s storyline work. Alton and Merdigen, at the wall, both retain fairly high levels of interest, though. And then there are a number minor characters whom you’ll likely wish had had slightly larger rolls.
New characters play out similar. You have Damien Frost and Lady who are interesting, in spite of being quite obviously based on Tom Bombadil and Goldberry from Lord of the Rings. Yet you also have Fergal, a Green Rider trainee with an abusive past, who does things so cruel and idiotic that his “redemption” feels forced. And there’s Amberhill, who has two aspects, the first being that he’s dumb as a brick. This makes him unbelievable in the role of a mysterious, charming thief ala Zorro… not to mention sad evidence that Britain seems to think it’s necessary to stuff in every fantasy staple possible.
Though in a lot of ways I enjoyed the book and the alarm bells quieted some, they didn’t go away completely. And Kristen Britain saying that she will “let the needs of the story dictate its own length” scares the bejeebus out of me. If the series ends at four books then fine, I can deal with the transition book that The High King’s Tomb obviously is. But if it doesn’t? Fantasy writers need to put a tighter rein on themselves, need to plan better before jumping into their works, or we’re going to end up with a whole slew of unfinished Wheel of Time type series on the shelves.
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