Sunday, March 02, 2003

Review: "The Briar King" by Greg Keyes

Greg Keyes' latest book "The Briar King" ($24.95, Del Rey) is just the kind I love - and the kind I've come to dread.

It's a complex story with a number of different threads and some nice twists and turns - epic fantasy at its best. Keyes has promised a four-book cycle, and that's what worries me. These days, the number of promised books tends to grow with the success of the series - witness Robert Jordan's unending mess of a story. And judging by the first installment, this should be a very popular tale. If Keyes can deliver in four books, though, this series, called "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone," could be one of the best I've come across in several years.

"The Briar King" takes on one of the great mysteries of American history - the lost colony of Roanoke Island. In 1587, more than 100 English colonists settled on the island, the first English settlement in America. Within three years, the colony had vanished without a trace, leaving only the word "Croatoan" carved in a tree.

In this book, Keyes speculates that the colonists were transported to a new world - in the most real sense of the word. There they were enslaved by creatures known as the Skasloi until Virginia Dare (if you've studied the Roanoke Colony, you'll know she was the first English child born in America) led the people in an uprising against their oppressors. But in order to free her people, Dare invoked a power more ancient and dangerous than the Skasloi. Now, generations later, her descendants may have to pay the ultimate price for their freedom. The legendary Briar King, a creature of myth and fable, has awakened to the world.

While "The Briar King" starts a little slow, laying the foundation of the story, about halfway through the action picks up. From there it's a thrill ride to the end with plenty of treachery, revelation and even a few bombshell surprises.

In truth, most of Keyes' characters are fantasy standards - the low-born warrior who gains knighthood through an act of valor, the headstrong (and a bit spoiled) princess who vows to marry for love and not duty, the grizzled woodsman, the foppish swordsman who is about to meet his match, the young monk who is learning that the church isn't as holy as he thought. Fantasy fans have read about these characters a dozen times in a dozen different books, but Keyes manages to take the basic archetypes and breathe new life into them.

He also has a deft hand at weaving together seemingly unconnected threads to form a bigger story, and his cliffhanger style of ending chapters keeps the reader hanging on and wanting to know what happens next. In those ways, "The Briar King" reminds me a great deal of George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series. That's not to say it's a knock-off, but rather a story as well-crafted and intriguing as Martin's. "The Briar King" offers one of the most promising starts I've seen since Martin's "A Game of Thrones." I hope the follow-up is as good.

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