The Baker's Boy, the first installment in "The Book of
Words" saga, contains all the earmarks of the beginning of a modern
fantasy epic: hidden identities, dying kings, evil sorcerers,
cryptically wise hermits, comings-of-age, prophecies of old coming to
pass. Newcomer J.V. Jones manages to weave an intricate
tale of intrigue and conspiracy that should satisfy even the most
jaded reader of traditional fantasy. For a fantasy novel to work really well, it must be richly layered,
with rounded characters acting on many different levels to reach
apparently disparate goals that will in fact converge like a mystery's
resolution upon the story's climax. We see the beginnings of this
kind of layering in the first volume of "The Book of Words."
A hermit who suspects that dire prophecy is come to pass sets a
young and determined knight upon a nearly impossible quest -- to look
for a boy 12 years of age, a boy who seems somehow set apart from the
norm. Where the knight Tawl will find the boy or in what circumstances
the hermit Bevlin cannot say, only that the fate of the entire world
hangs on this boy named in the ancient prophecy of the Book of Words.
Jack, the title character, toils in the kitchens of Castle Harvell as
the head baker's apprentice. Having never known his father, and having
lost his mother young, Jack has no one to protect him from his merciless
master. When the king's chancellor Baralis decides he needs a "blind"
scribe (someone who cannot read but has a good hand at drawing what he
sees) to copy the volumes of a borrowed library, Jack becomes servant to
two masters. His life as the orphaned son of a foreign whore loved by
none moves on under these two men, one whose wielded power is not only
political but magical, until an unconscious act of self-preservation
reveals Jack to be something much more than he appears. Baralis senses
Jack's unintended burst of supernatural power, and Jack
flees Castle Harvell and the only life he has ever known.
Melliandra is the young (and only) daughter of the most powerful lord
in the Four Kingdoms, the scheming, ambitious Lord Maybor. As a child,
Melli waits impatiently for the day that she might be recognized as a
Lady, with all the pomp and grandeur adulthood in the royal court implies.
But as the king lies slowly dying from wounds taken in a traitorous hunting
"accident," his queen tries to gather strength to her
son Kylock and solidity to his claim to the throne. She forges an
alliance with Maybor, and Maybor agrees happily to the betrothal of his
daughter to the heir to the throne of the Four Kingdoms. Melliandra
is repulsed by Kylock and his sinister mien, and suddenly adulthood in
the court ceases to look so attractive to her. She runs from Castle
Harvell and her unwilling betrothal, and that is when her life and Jack's
touch for the first time.
Scheming, double-crossing high lords, avaricious and gluttonous
churchmen, tortured seers, bawds and brawlers -- the cast of The Baker's
Boy is as sprawling and varied as Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims,
and original as anything that's come out of the traditional fantasy
genre in recent years. The only thing I found lacking in The
Baker's Boy was an occasional period or semi-colon to correctly
break up independent phrases; the grammarian in me is a nitpicker.
A few punctuation errors aside, this novel makes a strong opening
statement for the series that "The Book of Words" will become.
J.V. Jones got lucky with her first novel;
an editor at Warner/Aspect needing to bulk up the title list there
found her manuscript in the slush pile. It's possible, though, just
possible that editor got lucky as well, for J.V. Jones looks like a
talent to watch.