Have you ever noticed that in some books you feel like reaching out and giving the characters a really strong shake, and yelling in their ears “What do you think you’re doing?” You just can’t believe how stupid they are being or how they could be missing the obvious when it comes to doing what they need to do in order to survive.
Of course the problem is that they don’t happen to be privy to the same information that the author has shared with you. If they don’t happen to know that their opponent is a zombie and impossible to kill, they will assume a plot involving the death of that individual has a good chance of success. Unlike you, they didn’t read the bit of information in an earlier chapter showing the character pulling a knife from his heart like it was a minor inconvenience.
Now there are “B” grade horror movies where the characters go down the darkened staircase into the basement where you just know that they are making the mistake that’s going to cost them their lives and you can’t believe how stupid they are. But that’s more because of the stupid clichés of the genre than anything else.
What I’m referring to only happens in a novel when an author has managed to do accomplish two very important things; feed the reader pertinent bits of information via different characters so that we know about things like the zombie, and make us care about what happens to the characters to want to reach out and touch them. If you’re in that deep it also means that the author has managed to pull you so far into the story that you’re not getting out until it’s over.
It will usually go without saying that if you’ve read the first two books in a series that the author has managed to get his hooks into you. But at the same time what is there left for him to do that will hold your interest as a reader? There are only so many plot twists that you can introduce without a story become as convoluted as an out-of-control pretzel and new characters at this stage of the game are a risk.
In his series Kingdoms Of Thorn And Bone Greg Keyes answers that conundrum with a good deal of ingenuity. In The Blood Knight, the third and most recent instalment, he begins to bring some of the earlier threads of plot together to weave into the beginnings of a picture.
By tying up some of the loose ends of plot, and bringing together characters who have been separated since the beginning of the series, he not only streamlines the narrative but pares down the plot to its essentials. With a lot of the political intrigue solved by Princess Anne’s return home and the stage set for her being made Queen, we are free to focus on the key point in question, the survival of the world.
Although the threat still exists of armed assault upon the realm from forces of the Church and another country, that is a triviality compared to powers that have until now remained locked away for thousands of years. The young ex-priest, Stephen Darige, who only wanted to read and learn, finds himself at the centre of a prophecy concerning the return of a priest from 2,000 years ago who will bring about some sort of major change.
The problem is that nobody really knows what that means anymore, except one person, the head of the corrupt Church, and he wants the power of the prophesy for himself. Steven has to choose to accept the responsibility blindly or allow it to fall into the hands of someone he knows to be evil. Even though the action seems to run counter to everything he’s done to that point, he accedes to the former and begins to fulfill his duty.
Aspar White meanwhile has begun to have an even greater understanding of all the powers at play in his world of the forests and natural creatures. In a desperate search for an antidote to a poison that he’s contracted from one of the new evil creatures — the woorm, a monstrous beast whose very breath kills all living matter -– he seeks out the Sarnwood witch who’s said to be responsible for the creation of such creatures.
Instead of a witch, he finds another insight into the nature of his world. These beings are not being called forth by anyone but are part of a cycle of seasons that is beyond the understanding of the mortal mind to understand. As the Briar King is life and vitality they are death and decay, an equal part of the lifecycle of the natural world made incarnate in the various forms of monsters. They are beyond human understanding of good and evil, but as with anything else can be manipulated for evil ends by people with the means to control them.
Aspar cuts a deal with the presence that people call the Sarnwood witch, where she gives him the antidote, but he will owe her a favour at some point in the future. She doesn’t forbid him from killing her “children” as she calls the monsters but he leaves her with more questions than answers. He knows he will kill the woorm if he’s able, but now he doesn’t feel so certain about the role of humanity in the cycles of the world.
He’s never lived comfortably among humans anyway; it’s been his charge to protect the forest from their intrusions and to obey the King’s prohibitions concerning building and settling in the forest. He’s just never realized they were the Briar King’s laws, not his human king’s instructions. But can he, and even should he, prevent the destruction of the forests by these creatures? What happens if they are the natural order of things and he isn’t?
By the end of The Blood Knight we realize that no matter what the result of the conflict between the human forces arrayed against each other for the throne of Crotheny, it is only one third of the tale that is being played out in this strange and ancient world created by Greg Keyes. This book has served to bring the forces at work in the world on to their paths for final convergence; where these paths will lead is the mystery still awaiting revelation.
Part of me wants the series to end with the fourth book so I can find out the answers, but another part of me has been enjoying them far too much to want it to end at all. Still Keyes is far too good an author to stretch something out just for the sake of stretching it out so I look forward to whatever conclusion he has in mind for book four of The Kingdoms Of Thorn And Bone.