Book Review -- Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

November 5, 2009 -- 12:12 a.m.

"Aspar White smelled murder. Its scent was like a handful of autumn leaves, crisped by the first frost and crushed in the palm.

Dirty Jesp, the Sefry woman who had raised him, told him once that his perculiar sense came from having been born of a dying mother below the gallows where the Raver took his sacrifices. But Dirty Jesp made her living as a liar...."
-Greg Keyes, the Briar King, pg 21. (Showing a good example of a first line...well, if you don't count the prologues)

Where did the mysterious colonists who vanished from Roanoke go?

They were kidnapped by monsters, of course, and taken as slaves to a land of dark magic!

That has nothing to do with these books. Or not much, anyway. It's just fun to know because you can see some of the languages evolved from corrupted English. There are enough little easter eggs in these books to keep a reader took me an embarrassing long time to realize that the word "d'Ef" is, well...

Greg Keyes' series, called "The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" is definitely a winner and one of the most underappreciated sagas in the fantasy genre. At the end of the age of men, a small group of heroes is fighting to save the land from the unnatural evil looming. I got into this series a few years ago, but added two more books to my collection during the orange and black buy-fest. This is one of those sets of books that makes young writers groan, because there is no way you could ever replicate such wonderful prose.

Then you sigh and remember that Keyes has been writing professionally for much longer than you have, and the voice saying "I wish I could write like that" is quickly drowned out by all the wonderfulness of these books. They hit all the right old notes--buxom barmaids, snarky princesses, rapscallion fighters, and knights with big ass swords--with enough new twists to keep you interested. Monks with ninja-like powers! How awesome is THAT? Not to mention six-nippled albino gypsy people...

Besides a hefty helping of palace intrigues and a viewpoint character fatality rate reminiscent of George R.R. Martin, Keyes also does some wonderfully inventive things with religion. Now, I'm re-reading the series from scratch at the moment and my memory's a little patchy, but I believe I'm accurate in saying that the church has been calling the local spirits into "Saints" -- just like the Christian church of medieval Europe did in places like Ireland. By folding the local deities into their religion, they make it more easy for the locals to convert.

In this stories' case, if you walk through their sacred places, you get mad magical powers. Of course, each walk requires strength, and not all Saints are good...

Besides memorable characters, wonderful description, realistic languages (heroes actually have bad grammar and syntax errors when they switch tongues) and interesting religions, Keyes also plays with contrasts in weapons and culture. For example, one of the fighters is trained with a rapier, which works, although not always very well, against men with plate mail and cleavers.

Another wonderful part about this series is that it is done. No waiting for books. Just grab and go.

I've read all but the last book, the Born Queen, so I can't say whether the series' end is as good as its beginning, but these are books you won't regret buying, in my opinion--it's even available in e-book form. This is a sophisticated fantasy. As delicious as it gets.

My only complaint is that every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, which, occasionally, can seem a bit forced. But it's a small flaw compared with so much goodness packed into these pages.

I had to add this snippet from the Briar King, too, just because I love characters bantering with each other and the reference to Gimli/Legolas.

" 'I killed a hundred, before the gate,' Thaniel asserted.
" 'I killed a hundred and five,' Carsek replied.
" 'You can't count to a hundred and five,' Thaniel retorted.
" 'Aye, I can. It's how many times I've had your sister.'
" 'Well,' Thaniel mused, 'then my sister had to have been counting for you. I know that after two hands and two feet, I had to start counting for your mother.'
" At that, both men paused.
" 'We are very funny men, aren't we?' Carsek grunted.
" 'We are men,' Thaniel said, more soberly. 'And alive, and free. And that is enough.'"
- Greg Keyes, The Briar King, pg. 10


  1. Lee Ann Setzer said...

    I just discovered Keyes this year--King recommended him to me at the Dave workshop. I read _Newton's Cannon_, which I liked, but it ended on such a screaming cliffhanger that I got miffed and didn't want to give Keyes the satisfaction of reading Book 2 right away. You reminded me I need to get back to those books.

  2. Lee Ann Setzer said...


    Jenn, for some reason the identifier codes that Blogger has me type in are always interesting fantasy-sounding words. But only on your blog. As in, I think I'll go name a character Wayssa right now.

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