The Briar King is a dark fantasy by Greg Keyes, the first book in a 4-book series titled “The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone.” Two thousand years before the main storyline, human slaves overthrow their Skasloi overlords using the forbidden sedos magic. The Skasloi prophesies that the sedos will eventually cause their own destruction.
In the present day, that long-forgotten prophecy shows signs of becoming true. The king’s woodsman, Aspar White, investigates butchered villagers and whispers of something darker. Stephen Darige begins his scholastic training as a monk. And Anne Dare, teenage princess of Crotheny, flirts and misbehaves, unaware of the political machinations and treachery swirling around her father’s throne. Keyes does a great job with characterization and with interesting plot-lines- complex but not byzantine. The plot-lines merge as the story builds to the climactic encounter with the Briar King, an ancient nightmare reawakened.
The Briar King has a dark tone throughout. The monstrous gryffen that stalks Aspar in the forest is no cartoon lion/eagle creation. Keys wisely gives us glimpses of the creature before revealing it- dead frogs where the gryffen crossed a stream, footprints filled with vile mushrooms, an eye in the forest. Keyes breaths darkness and fear into his descriptions of the gryffen and other ancient evils. At times the book veered from pure fantasy into horror..
I enjoyed the Briar King enough to read it a second time, and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series- The Charnel Prince.
A note to Kindle readers: Like many fantasy novels, this one includes a map. Unfortunately, the map was unreadably small on my Kindle 2. My solution was to copy the map from a library copy of the book, and reference that as I read the Kindle. The map added to my understanding and enjoyment of the story, and I recommend this solution.