FORMAT/INFO: The River Kings’ Road is 384 pages long divided over twenty numbered chapters and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third person via Brys Tarnell, Odosse, Bitharn, Leferic, and Albric Urdaring. The River Kings’ Road comes to a natural and satisfying stopping point, but is the first volume in a new fantasy series set in the world of Ithelas.
March 9, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The River Kings’ Road via Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster.
ANALYSIS: One of the things I love best about reading fantasy is the scope and diversity that the genre has to offer — a scope and diversity that is only limited by the imagination of writers. That said, there’s just something comforting about the familiar, whether it’s reading a book by your favorite author, re-reading a favorite novel or series, or reading a book that reminds you of something you read in the past. This is exactly how I felt when reading Liane Merciel’s debut novel, The River Kings’ Road.
From top to bottom, The River Kings’ Road will be instantly familiar to anyone well-versed in fantasy literature. The setting is classic medieval European, complete with fiefs, kingdoms, knights, sellswords, peasants, bandits, sword/melee/archery competitions, brothels, inns, taverns, etc. The characters are all recognizable types (the practical mercenary, the peasant with dreams far above her station, the lord who believes he would make a better leader for his people, the woman skilled in archery, a knight bound by his duty to his lord) with clear-cut good and evil figures, although the author does inject some ambiguity into Brys, Leferic and Albric. The story is full of familiar tropes and themes including warring kingdoms, fratricide, the undead, honor, guilt, redemption, sacrifice, committing acts of evil in the name of the greater good, and so on. The magic system relies on the blessings of gods — Celestia for the Sun Knights, Kliasta for the Thorns (practitioners of bloodmagic). And the writing, while competent as a whole, lacks a distinctive voice and tends to follow a formulaic pattern right down to the multiple narratives, predictable world-building, and setting up events for the rest of the series.
Yet for all of its familiarity, I really enjoyed reading The River Kings’ Road. The plot was fast-moving, entertaining and accessible, while also managing to throw a couple of unexpected curve-balls at the reader. The setting is well-realized and hints at a much larger and interesting world, I cared about the characters, and I finished the novel wanting to know what happens next. In short, even though The River Kings’ Road fails to bring anything new to the fantasy genre, I liked what I saw from Liane Merciel’s debut, and believe the book is a promising start to what could be a fun and engaging new fantasy series.
If The River Kings’ Road had been published fifteen years ago, it would have been hailed as something special. Liane Merciel does a splendid job on the whole. She has interesting characters, a suspenseful plot, and a good turn-of-phrase. It has all the elements of a great fantasy novel… including the ones that have been working very well for a lot of other fantasy novelists during the past decade.
The novel is never short of entertaining, but it does have one very real problem, and that is its clearly derivative tone and style. It’s a perfectly serviceable, charming read, but Merciel’s relative inexperience as a professional author shows. Her personal voice is often lost in imitation of other novelists, and the world-building in particular lacks the freshness that would make this a memorable journey. It’s the worst-kept secret in the world that fantasy has been obsessed with late medieval Europe ever since Tolkien (ironic given that Tolkien probably meant LORD OF THE RINGS to equate to a rather earlier period), but a fantasist fully in command of the world-building elements can make the reader buy into this alternate universe as if for the first time. Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind was replete with familiar tropes — faeries, a clique of ancient, fallen-from-grace evildoers, and a plucky young male protagonist are about as typical as it gets — but his personal spin on these elements transformed them into something that felt new and vibrant. Merciel tries hard, but never quite manages a similar feat.
That is, however, the only major complaint I had about the novel. The River Kings’ Road is just fun. It’s adventurous, well-written, and swift-moving. The main thread and subplots weave together well, and I never once considered picking it up to have been a mistake. To sum up, The River Kings’ Road is exactly what people mean in this day and age when they talk about a “typical fantasy.” It’s got all the familiar elements and does pretty much what the reader expects it will. On the other hand, it does so well, and I think that only the most unforgiving reader will come away feeling that the derivative nature of the book entirely spoiled the experience. This is pleasant, exciting fantasy blockbuster fare. It’s not groundbreaking, but it makes good use of the ground already broken.
Ithelas — (2010-2011) Publisher: A fragile period of peace between the eternally warring kingdoms of Oakharn and Langmyr is shattered when a surprise massacre fueled by bloodmagic ravages the Langmyrne border village of Willowfield, killing its inhabitants — including a visiting Oakharne lord and his family — and leaving behind a scene so grisly that even the carrion eaters avoid its desecrated earth. But the dead lord’s infant heir has survived the carnage — a discovery that entwines the destinies of Brys Tarnell, a mercenary who rescue the helpless and ailing babe, and who enlists a Langmyr peasant, a young mother herself, to nourish and nurture the child of her enemies as they travel a dark, perilous road… Odosse, the peasant woman whose only weapons are wit, courage, and her fierce maternal love — and who risks everything she holds dear to protect her new charge… Sir Kelland, a divinely blessed Knight of the Sun, called upon to unmask the architects behind the slaughter and avert war between ancestral enemies… Bitharn, Kelland’s companion on his journey, who conceals her lifelong love for the Knight behind her flawless archery skills — and whose feelings may ultimately be Kelland’s undoing… and Leferic, an Oakharne Lord’s bitter youngest son, whose dark ambitions fuel the most horrific acts of violence. As one infant’s life hangs in the balance, so too does the fate of thousands, while deep in the forest, a Maimed Witch practices an evil bloodmagic that could doom them all…