I bought The Briar King by Greg Keyes a while back because everybody told me that it was so good. However, I found myself reluctant to start yet another epic fantasy series, so it languished in my "to-be-read" stack. Then I received a review copy of the second book in the series, The Charnel Prince, so I decided I should probably read both of them soon. I tell you this not because you should necessarily care what I do (what a man reads is really his private business unless he writes reviews about them), but so that you can avoid doing the same thing I did. If you like fantasy at all, you should go out, get this book, and maybe even the second book, and read them. Right now. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Oh, you want me to tell you why you should read it? Okay. Keyes has created a masterpiece with vivid characters, an interesting overarching plot, and a doom from the dawn of time. This is not your ordinary doom from the dawn of time, though. The Briar King is a force of nature that is never truly understood, something called forth to wreak havoc on the land, changing this world into its own gruesome image. With this book, Keyes is well on his way to reshaping that world. We follow a disparate group of characters including a king, his queen, a young knight who becomes her protector, a couple of princesses, and a fencer who becomes infatuated with one of those princesses. On the other hand, we have the guardian of the King's Forest, his lover, and a monk who finds himself translating some very ancient - and very evil - documents, much to the detriment of the world, not to mention his own skin. A conspiracy is afoot throughout the land, one which may bring down an entire royal family, and one which may result in the death of everybody. Everywhere. Treachery abounds, and nobody is safe. Will the coming of the Briar King make this all moot?
Keyes does almost everything right in The Briar King. He switches settings with a deftness I haven't seen in quite a while, leaving each scene just when it's starting to get good. This causes the reader to read the traditional "just one more chapter" to find out what's going on. I average about one hundred pages a day usually, and I know I at least doubled that with this book. Every character is completely three-dimensional with the exception of Fend, one of the villains of the piece. I found him a bit flat, but otherwise all the characters are interesting. Keyes also takes the story in some unexpected directions. A love affair that seems very predictable doesn't, in fact, happen. There are some daring escapes, but each one is plausible, not stretching that oh-so-important suspension of disbelief that some fantasy novels break constantly. Each character has a completely understandable motivation that keeps the book moving at a lightning pace.
Keyes also does a wonderful job of world-building. The map is beautiful (he credits Kirk Caldwell for it) and the land is populated with a dazzling array of cultures, all of them suitably human but different enough that you can tell the difference. One area, Vitellio, is clearly patterned after medieval Italy, even down to the names which sound pseudo-Italian. This has the double benefit of giving you an idea what the culture is like, but it's just different enough. He also has a talent for languages. The language in Vitellio is one example, but others have been made up as well. He even goes so far as to invent dialects and slang for some of the people.
I have to compliment Keyes on the prose in the book. The imagery is amazing, and the action scenes are extremely well-choreographed. They are realistic, and blood does flow vividly, but he's not so graphic that heads are bouncing all over the place (though one or two of them do). Whether it's a quiet scene or a loud scene with swords bouncing off of plate armour, Keyes does a great job with it. Here's an example:
"Asper White opened his eyes to a vaulted stone ceiling and a distant, singsong litany. Fever crawled like centipedes beneath his skin, and when he tried to move, his limbs felt like rotting fern fronds." (p. 382)
Best of all, Keyes is not afraid to kill any of his characters. Some people think that George R.R. Martin is sadistic to his characters! The body count is quite high, but none of the deaths are gratuitous. Each one fits the story perfectly, though some are perfunctory. Even these, however, don't feel out of place. Instead, they are realistic. While there are heroic escapes (and, admittedly, a couple of rather unrealistic ones), it's never a certainty that the viewpoint character will make it out of the scene alive. Sometimes, a death is just a death.
The Briar King is one of the best fantasy books I've read since Jennifer Fallon's series, and I think it even surpasses them. Everything just comes together in a rich whole, making a juicy treat that tastes good with every bite. And the best thing is when you finish it, you can pick up the second book and wolf that one down, too. Sadly, it will be close to a year before the final book is out.