The Born Queen by Greg Keyes

The Born Queen

AuthorGreg Keyes

Page Count: 464 pages pages
Publisher: Del Rey
Release Date: March 25, 2008
ISBN-10: 0345440692
ISBN-13: 978-0345440693

Greg Keyes is the most underread author in epic fantasy.

There, I said it.

His most recent work, a four volume cycle called The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone sets the bar for how to write a multi-volume epic fantasy without all the bloat that plagues so many other series. Keyes manages to tell an engaging, fully realized story and bring it all to a satisfying close by just the fourth book, The Born Queen.

Where Keyes excels is in the characters he crafts. Taking familiar archetypes – The Princess, The Woodsman, The Scholar, The Cocky Swordsman – he strips them down to the barest essentials and then reinvents them. The Princess, for once, is likeable; The Woodsman is an unconventional ladies man; The Scholar ends up kicking some ass; The Cocky Swordsman is most honorable and self sacrificing. When we were first introduced to the characters in The Briar King, I had trouble seeing what the big deal was – I had seen all this before. But by the end of that first volume I understood, and that was only the beginning of where those characters would take me.

I’ve always described Keyes as a perfect combination of Terry Brooks, Tad Williams and George R.R. Martin, three of my favourite authors. Keyes takes Brooks’ easy to read style and relatable characters, Williams’ sense of wonder, Martin’s ability to craft a deep story in a fully realized world and forms something magical. Taking cues from these other authors, it makes me scratch my head in wonder that Keyes is not being read by the audience of each.

Keyes’ world started out beautiful in The Briar King, a romantic mixture of France, Spain, England and Scandinavia, with a clever twist allowing tales and lore from our world to leak into his (Hint: google the Roanoke colony), and by the time of The Born Queen it’s impossible not to ache at the violence and war that has bled over it all. Keyes stays mostly away from epic scale warfare (something he admits that he has little knowledge of) and instead shows the wars being fought through the eyes of the characters, an intimate look at the ravaging of the land by opposing armies and the viles of the church.

When I finished the third novel in the cycle, The Blood Knight, I was floored. Each of the novels was better than the one before it and The Blood Knight was no exception. I obviously had high expectations for The Born Queen, but was also worried about all the loose ends that Keyes had to deal with in one volume. The Born Queen isn’t the best volume in the cycle, that honor still goes to The Blood Knight, and this is partly due to the fact that Keyes did have so much to cram into one volume. He manages to answer all the question I had going into the final volume – and the novel features one my favourite epilogues I’ve had the pleasure of reading – but I couldn’t help but feel that the whole novel felt a little rushed.

The series’ cast of stars spent most of the first three volumes grouped up together in various combinations, allowing Keyes to move the core plots along while exploring each of the various POV (point of view) characters in depth. By The Born Queen, however, almost each of the characters are off alone following their own storyline in various different areas of the world. This leads to a splintered approach to storytelling as Keyes juggles several storylines and subsequently must drop some for many pages/chapters at a time while he focuses on the others. It’s a shame when he drops the storylines and characters you’re most excited about.

For the most part these characters, and their various plots, come to satisfying ends; though some of the twists (while interesting and shocking on a surface level) seem rather unusual and abrupt in hindsight. All in all, though, Keyes kept the pace screaming as he brings all the plot threads together with bang. Here’s hoping other authors writing similar series will be able to wrap things up as successfully.

To make it short: Buy these books.

I don’t know how else to say it. The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone is one of the best examples of epic fantasy written in years and is complete – no waiting years for the next volume. If you’re a fan of fantasy, do yourself (and Keyes) a favour and read it.

  • Gabriele June 7, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    To make it short: Buy these books.

    Lol, I alredy bought them. Living two weeks off the travel budget fred some grocery money in May, and I got those, plus the Malazan books up to Reaper’s Gale (after I got hooked halfway through the first), and both of Brian Ruckley.

  • ediFanoB June 7, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    I read the Age of Unreason series by Greg Keyes. Since then Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is on my wish list. Your review encouraged me to buy and read these books as soon as possible.

  • William June 8, 2008 at 7:04 am

    I’ve been meaning to read these for a while now, so it’s good to know they are worthwhile! However, I had to laugh at your first sentence: “His most recent works, a four volume cycle called The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone sets the bar for how to write a multi-volume epic fantasy without all the bloat that plagues so many other series.” What is the fantasy world coming to when a *four-volume* series is seen as being bloat-free?!

  • aidan June 8, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Gabriele – Glad to know you picked them up! Be sure to drop me a line and let me know how you’re enjoying them.

    ediFanoB – By Greg Keyes’ own admission, he’s grown a lot as a writer since first entering the field. If you enjoyed his Age of Unreason series, you’re sure to enjoy his later books.

    William – Heh, that’s actually a really good point. I’m a huge fan of standalone novels, and wish there were more of them out there (one of the reasons I’ve been switching my focus to SF of late), and it is a scary world where a four book series is considered tight. That being said, there’s a certain appeal in these multi-volume epics! I get the feeling that Keyes would probably have liked to have a fifth book to properly tell his story, but was constrained to four by his contract.

  • Gabriele June 8, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Those big epic thingies can become rather addictive – Malazan Book of the Fallen surely is.

    I need therapy. :)

  • Rob B June 9, 2008 at 6:34 am

    Nice review, Aidan. I finished it recently and will be posting my review soon. I think one of the worst thing’s that Greg’s been tagged with is “GRRM-lite.” There are similarities, but Greg is doing things his own way and differently. I really love this series.

  • Sean June 9, 2008 at 7:41 am

    Nice review Aidan,
    Rarely do I read reviews that make me think, well that will be the next series I dive into, but you’ve sold it high, so i’ll check it out. I hope i’m not disappointed.

  • thrinidir June 9, 2008 at 8:44 am

    I just might be copying your introduction words for my forthcoming review of Kearney’s The Ten Thousand ;)

  • Becky June 9, 2008 at 9:01 am

    I have read the first 3 and have been trying to wait for the Born Queen to come out in paperback, but now you are forcing me to go out right NOW and BUY it!! Your review is dead-on about the first 3, so I am off now to (my budget does not thank you, but my greedy reader’s brain does!!)

  • SQT June 10, 2008 at 8:37 am

    I just started reading this series not too long ago and you’re right. He’s fabulous.

  • Graeme June 10, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I really enjoyed this book but it didn’t feel as good as it could have been (to me, anyway). Maybe my expectations were raised by earlier books…
    Even so, I think ‘Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone’ is one of the best fantasy series out there right now and it’s criminal that Keyes’ is not better known than he already is :)

  • aidan June 10, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Rob B – I used to think of the series as ‘Martin-lite” and really started to feel the same way you do. It just doesn’t do Keyes, or his series, justice. By the end of The Born Queen I’m even more conviced that it deserves to sit up beside Tad Williams and Robin Hobb as some of the best (maybe not quite as high as Martin…) that the genre has to offer.

    Sean, Becky – Glad I could do something to boost Keyes’ sales!

    Thrindir – Feel free to steal the line. After interviewing Kearney, and seeing how bloody hard he works, I’m more than happy to see people promoting his work!

    SQT – Glad you’re enjoying the books!

    Graeme – I think I agree with you, for the most part. The Born Queen isn’t the strongest volume in the series, but it’s still one of the strongest concluding volumes I’ve read in a while (up there with Abercrombie’s Last Argument of Kings. It’s certainly a good time to be a fan of fantasy!

  • heather (errantdreams) June 11, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Noooo! Stop making me want to read a whole other SERIES! I’m buried as it is! You evil, evil person!

  • aidan June 12, 2008 at 10:59 am

    Heather – I make no apologies for promoting Greg’s series. In fact, I think he deserves your money more than youd do!

  • heather (errantdreams) June 12, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Ha, it’s about time more than money. And, ouch!

  • aidan June 12, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Ahh yes… free time. I’ve forgotten what that was.

  • Jeff C June 12, 2008 at 11:32 am

    nice review aidan. This book took more knocks (mostly because folks thought it felt rushed) than I expected. I almost gave it a perfect 10 when i finished it. I thought books 3 and 4 in this series were just about as good as fantasy gets (at least for the kind i like to read). I need to track down the rest of them in hardback, as i think this is a series that needs to be owned in hardcover, not mmpb.