Every society, culture, or race has its origins, its creation myths. The same can be said for some lands or countries. The people who rule over a block of land may change, but the origins and those myths stay the same. The mysterious forces of nature that never factor human nonsense like civilization into their calculations always haunt our nights and pop up in our scariest stories. Their stories (or existence depending on your beliefs) predate whoever rules over the forces of men and persist in spite of what doctrine and ordained belief might dictate.
Whether these ancient forces are true or not, they are declared evil or scorned in equal measure for their failure to put human beings as the focal point of existence. The gods and goddesses we have created for ourselves are designed to define, or justify, our role in the universe. Anything that omits us or gives the appearance of playing short shrift with our purposes must therefore be wrong.
Of course these are the tales that are most easily perverted and twisted to advantage by those unscrupulous enough to do so. It can be easy enough to use those tales as shields for your manipulation of events. If evil is happening in the forests of the world it is not hard to set about rumours that those ancient forces of nature are at the root of it all, thus throwing anybody off the scent of your role in events.
In the world created by Greg Keyes for his latest series, Kingdom Of Thorn And Bone, events like those described above are set to unfold. Which actions are those of malevolent humans and which are those of the natural world biting back against the unnaturalness it feels let loose on its surface?
The Briar King, the first book of the series, not only serves as the introduction to the myriad cast of characters and the various lands and stratas of society they occupy, but the threads of plot they are attached to in the overall weave of the story. At the centre is Princess Anne Dare, who is a direct descendant of the race of warrior queens who wrested the land from the evil that preceded human rule.
Humans are never satisfied with their power in the corporal world and even though it was a Dare who first ruled, various families and countries have parked their butts in the throne that oversees the lands of the North. They see an opportunity to wrest power from the current occupant and his family, because his son is simple and the rest of his offspring are daughters.
In order to remove all possible obstacles to the throne, they lay plots both human and magical. The human ones they can hide with duplicity and stealth, while for the magical ones they can utilize the superstitious beliefs in the Briar King to disguise what they are doing.
When rumours of strange happenings in the forest, including the reappearance of mythical creatures reaches the ears of Aspar, the Emperor's man in charge of preserving the laws governing the forests, he finds himself drawn into the nightmare the human forces against the Emperor and his family have created. Along with Stephen, a young priest/scholar and Winna, Aspar's love, he sets out to uncover the truth behind the reappearance of ancient evils.
Are they truly heralds of the return of the dreaded Briar King, which would supposedly spell the end of humanity? Even if they are only the machinations of the humans wishing to overthrow the king, how can they stop the creatures like the gryphons that can kill with a look, or the magically augmented men who move with superhuman speed and can withstand punishment that would kill a normal person ten times over?
While these three chase through the woods Anne and her companion/maid Austra have been sent off to a coven of mysterious sisters for her education and protection. Not only will the sisters train her in the arts of being an assassin, they will be able to ensure her safety in these times of unrest. Or that's the theory anyway.
Nobody had counted on the enemies drawing upon powers that even the mysterious sisters can't defend against and when the coven is attacked, they are barely able to sneak Anne and Austra out of the grounds. The girls are befriended by the son of impoverished nobility and his elderly fencing teacher. The two men become wrapped up in saving the girls from those who are attempting to kill them and agree to help them attempt to return home.
Greg Keyes does a wonderful job of not only writing four, and sometimes more, plot lines that run concurrent without being confusing, but creating characters that are more than just types to act in them. While in the beginning a character may start out as a type, like Sir Neil, the young knight who becomes the Queen's own guard for instance could easily become the typical young man pure of heart and innocent of evil influence, but Keyes is too good a writer to allow cliché to taint his story.
Characters will act in ways that will not be true to type, but true to who they are as a person, which gives them extra definition and makes it far easier to keep track of each plot line. When the characters are memorable I find it easier to remember what segment of the story is associated with them. In The Briar King, Keyes has managed to distinguish his characters sufficiently that all I needed was to read a name in order to visualize the context they were associated with.
Save for Anne, all the characters converge at the end of book like survivors of a shipwreck on an island of calm amidst stormy seas. Here they attempt to take stock of the situation and prepare for whatever faces them next. Who is behind the threat to the crown and responsible for the murder of the Emperor and two of his daughters? Were the rogue churchmen performing the rituals that allowed them access to evil magic that enabled them to almost kill the Queen Empress operating on their own or does the plot spread even higher?
But most importantly, who is the Briar King? Does his return to the living really mean the end of the human world as has been predicted for over two thousand years? Is he in league with the men who have raised the old evils, or is he a wild card that nobody has reckoned with? These are the questions that the characters are faced with discovering the answers to in the books to come.
Keyes has created a rich and splendid world where magical beings still live in the forest and protect it from human intrusion. Nature spirits aren't gentle little creatures that grant human's wishes in this world, they are fierce and protective of their place in the universe and care nothing for the wants and desires of humanity.
The humans of this world can either respect that or ignore the consequences at their peril. Underlying all the human plots, intrigues, and evil magic lays this implicit threat. If the Briar King is back and the stories are true, who wins the human struggle for power may end up being irrelevant.