Sunday, January 30, 2005

Review: "The Charnel Prince" by Greg Keyes

Epic fantasy can be a tough nut to crack.

Between the classic high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien and the gritty, more modern fantasy of George R.R. Martin, there's plenty of fertile ground for writers, but there is also a lot of land that's been leached of its resources through overuse. That's why picking up the latest epic can be an iffy proposition, but when you get a good one, the fantasy subgenre is hard to beat.

Greg Keyes has planted the seeds for an excellent epic tale with the first books of his "Kingdom of Thorn and Bone" series. The second installment, "The Charnel Prince" ($23.95, Del Rey) delivers exactly what the first book, "The Briar King," promised - an action-packed thrill ride that keeps readers intrigued and turning pages.

Keyes' style blends the best of both worlds of epic fantasy. The action is more akin to Martin's darkly violent style, with no punches pulled. The tone and world of the story are closer to Tolkien's magical realm, filled with great wonder.

In "The Charnel Prince," the legendary Briar King walks the world again, and with him, he's brought beasts and monsters that most people considered only myths. Then again, a lot of the people of Keyes' world once considered the Briar King a myth.

Meanwhile, a civil war is brewing in Crotheny following the murder of the king and most of his family, and the surrounding nations are positioning themselves to capitalize. Queen Murielle has kept a shaky grip on the throne with her mentally disabled son Charles, but unless her daughter and only other surviving family member, Anne Dare, is found, all may be lost.

If you missed "The Briar King," you might want to pick it up in paperback ($7.50, Del Rey) before you get started on this one. Otherwise, you'll be a little lost in the story, and you may not get a full appreciation for some of the characters, which were more fully introduced in the first volume.

Since Keyes weaves so many storylines together, the chapters of the book hop from character to character, and the author usually leaves readers in a cliffhanger ending to each chapter. I've heard some complaints from other readers about this style, but personally, I love it. I think it's one of the things that makes the book so hard to put down. I've just got to see what happens next.

Another appealing thing about this book is that Keyes wastes little time on the lengthy, distracting, purple-prose descriptions you'll find in other epic fantasy novels. He tells the reader only what you need to know and keeps the plot moving forward.

I'm always a little nervous about recommending a series like this because I've seen a lot of promising epic series come to a bad ending (usually by never ending). The concise way that Keyes has structured the first two books gives me hope that he can tell the story in the promised four books.

Keyes is off to a fantastic start with a series that could rank among the best the genre has to offer.