One of the most anxiously awaited books this year (by me, anyway) was The Blood Knight by Greg Keyes. The third book in the “Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone” series is once again a phenomenal entry. It avoids the one pitfall of The Charnel Prince (namely, one huge coincidence that almost broke my suspension of disbelief) and doesn't add any others to the mix. I'd say it's even better than the first book, The Briar King and yet another worthy part of one of the best fantasy series I've read in a long time.
Unrest settles over the kingdom of Crotheny. Princess Anne, who escaped assassination at the Coven of St. Cer where she was sent for training, has been apparently captured, but the book opens with her waking up to discover herself lying next to a man who has been brutally killed. She has been having visions of some otherworldly entity, some demon in female form that may be helping her - or at least preventing others from harming her. Her uncle, Robert, has returned from the dead and deposed her mother, Muriele, from the throne. With a steadily growing entourage, Anne must march on the capital and wrest back control of the kingdom, though other events around the world may make the whole pointless moot. The Briar King is back, a force of nature that seems to think that all men must die for what has been done to the forests in the land, but even he may not be the force everybody believes he is. What does all this have to do with ancient history and the exploits of Anne's distant ancestor, Virgenya Dare, and how she freed humanity from the Skasloi? Old secrets come to the forefront again, the laws of Death have been breached, and who knows what will happen even if Anne is successful.
This summary is extremely narrow, as it leaves out a number of different plotlines that all have to do with the overarching story. The Blood Knight is definitely a complicated book, but Keyes makes it all look effortless. His writing is vivid whether he is writing a battle scene or a tender moment between two people in a budding romance. His turn of phrase is wonderful, with interesting descriptions and an excellent use of language. Best of all, though, is the style of the book. Each chapter centers on one character or group of characters, leading to a bit of a cliffhanger or sudden twist, before moving on to another one. Thus, while all the different situations are related to each other, they are all still clearly defined. This sets a kind of leisurely pace that makes the book a pleasant read despite some of the cruelties or destruction contained therein. As the book rushes to a climax, however, this rule is thrown out the window. Scenes flash by in quick succession, points of view change, and many of the sections are quite short. This adds an intensity to the ending that, while it may not have been needed, definitely made the book hard to put down as the ending approached.
Once again, Keyes’ characterization is almost flawless. The female characters are all strong (some stronger than others, of course) but not needlessly rough. Anne has some serious doubts about her ability to lead the march on the castle because of her aloof childhood, but she marshals her strength as well as incorporating some of the magical abilities that she has discovered. Stephen, the bookish monk who comes into his own near the end as he discovers that he is more than just a sidekick, is masterfully handled. His transition is logical and helped along by outside forces as they require him to see more to himself than he ever thought possible. One slight issue with the female characterization is that most of them (pretty much all but Anne) are partially defined through their relationships with the men. What saves Keyes in this case, however, is the fact that most are strong despite that, not because of it. Their relationships are only part of their characters, not the only aspect that gives them depth. Austra is the only one who really suffers here, but since she's Anne's servant and childhood friend, she is more defined by her relationships to everybody, not just the man she loves. Even Austra, however, has some really good moments where she comes into her own.
I also can't say enough about the plot of the book (and this series). It's truly an epic story, covering religion, mystical forces, and politics. Keyes puts some nice twists on the old "the kingdom is in danger from outside forces who want to take control" theme, and while it's unclear exactly what the relationship is between the political and the more mystical aspects of the series, it's clear that there is one. For those who are really confused, Keyes provides a very thorough explanation (pretty much an infodump, but told in a way that isn't completely boring) near the end of the book.
Speaking of the ending, keep in mind that there is a fourth (and final) book coming. Keyes seems to like 4-book series (see his “Age of Unreason” books). Strangely, everything seems to build toward a climax, but as the end nears, there is clearly too much to resolve by the end of The Blood Knight. Keyes produces a couple of massive twists that move things off in a new direction, which should make for a cracking finale.
Forgive me if this review sounds like a gush, but I truly loved this novel, and I think any fan of high fantasy would, too. The entire series is worth reading, and the wait for the final book will be excruciating. Whenever you do so, you have to read this series.