When nature decides to strike back against humanity she's not going to discriminate between those who think they are friends of the earth and those who don't give a damn. She's not that choosy in anything she does. No matter what anyone says about the storms being God's verdict on anyone's behaviour, one has nothing to do with the other. If they did, don't you think that most capital cities in this world would have been decimated thousands of times over in the last ten years alone? Talk about dens of iniquity…
In The Charnel Prince, book two of his saga The Kingdom Of Thorn And Bone, Greg Keyes continues where he left off in book one, The Briar King, with a description of what could happen when just such circumstances come to pass. What could trigger such a severe reaction on the part of the natural world? Is it only because of human intrusion into places they shouldn't have been? Or is there something deeper and fouler at work?
What is the mysterious connection between the ruling Dare family of the Crotheny Empire, the forces of the ancient world, and the power of the Briar King? Whose power is behind the human face that is seeking to ensure a female Dare does not obtain the throne after the emperor is murdered? Are they in league with the Briar King, or are they what he has returned to fight against?
With the murder of all her sisters on the same night as the death of the Emperor, Anne Dare has become the only living female with a claim to the throne, which in the eyes of many makes her life forfeit. Knowing that her life is in danger, but not knowing why or that her father is dead, Anne has been trying to make her way home with the aid of two new friends, Cazio and z'Acatto, a young hot-headed swordsman and his fencing master, and her maid Austra.
While the idea of seeking passage on board a ship seems a good way to avoid the roads and potential pursuit by her assassins (including some who appear unable to be killed even when they are relieved of their heads, although that does render them harmless as they can only lay about and twitch after that), the difficulty of raising the necessary money to buy passage is an unexpected hardship. Being raised a princess does not prepare one for life as a scullery maid, which is the only work Anne is skilled enough to obtain.
On the other side of the sea, people are still reeling from the murder of the king and his daughters and the near-death of the Queen Mother. It was only through the timely intervention of the King's Woodsman, Aspar White, and Stephen Darige, a priest with unusual powers, that the plot of supposedly corrupted members of the church was stopped in time to prevent complete disaster.
Even then, if not for the intervention of the Briar King, all might have ended badly. When a high church official commands them to seek out and destroy the Briar King they both have some misgivings. Why had the Briar King saved Aspar from death if he was evil? Were those priests who were practising dark arts really separated from the church, or was there some deeper plot at work here? After all the church had fought with the now-dead emperor over the naming of his daughters as heirs, was their ulterior motive behind that the same one that drives men to seek Anne Dare's death?
Are these powers the same ones behind the plot to blow up the dikes and locks that prevent the seas from pouring in and flooding the lands of Crotheny? What about the humans that have become bestial, and roam the forests in packs killing and eating everyone they meet? Are they servants of the Briar King, doing his biding by cleansing the land of the pollution of humanity, or something even more hostile (although how humans travelling in packs, unafraid of death and injury, killing and eating anyone in their path could be worse than what they are, I don't know)?
There are circles within circles within circles in The Charnel Prince, plots that interconnect, start in the middle of nowhere and go off in all directions at once. At least that's what it looks like at first. But gradually as Keyes' characters move deeper into the mystery of what is happening to their world, things start to fall into place a piece at a time.
But unlike most jigsaw puzzles, which can be boring and frustrating experiences, each piece that forms part of Keyes' overall mosaic is a rich and full story unto itself. Each storyline that's followed, those continued from book one and the ones introduced in this book, has its own fascination that captures the interest.
The characters are rich and diverse, with motivations and desires that are as believable as they are understandable. They are what carry the plot lines forward and as they are caught up in the intricacies of the action so are we. It doesn't matter whether it's Anne and her companions, Aspar and his, or even the newly introduced character of the court composer Leoff Ackenzal. They are all intriguing enough to make whatever happens to them interesting to us.
Of course some of the action is interesting enough on its own that it wouldn't make any difference if the characters had all the appeal of a block of wood, we would still be wrapped up in the spell that Keyes is able to create. While some authors render the simple difficult through convolutions of style and ineptitude, Keyes has the extraordinary talent of making what at first glance seems a complicated morass of information straightforward and understandable.
The Charnel Prince takes the plot lines that were introduced in The Briar King and elaborates on them with grace and style. Characters grow with their experiences and become even more intriguing. Sometimes the only thing that compensates for changing story lines is the awareness that the one being introduced holds the same promise for enchantment as the one that just finished.
A word of warning – once you commit to The Kingdoms Of Thorns And Bone you won't be able to extricate yourself easily, but that's only because you won't want to, not because of some malicious plot of the Briar King. Or is it?