Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review of the Week: The King's Bastard by Rowena Cory Daniels

I'll admit that I bought The King's Bastard based on nothing more than the title. Insane, right? The cover did absolutely nothing for me. The shadowy color scheme and vaguely ominous backdrop took away from what could have been an intriguing figure I assumed was the protagonist. The back copy wasn't much better, leaving me wondering whether it was wise for the author to choose a concept that seemingly falls so close to the shadow cast by one of the giants of the genre. But the title is so close to an unfinished manuscript I spent some months on, that I had to check it out just for my own curiosity's sake.

The King's Bastard focuses on the family of King Rolen, whose reign over Rolencia is supported largely through his alliance with the warlords of the borderlands that stand between his kingdom and the rival nation of Merofynia, with whom he's kept an uneasy peace. Unlike in Merofynia, magic use is restricted in Rolencia.  All who possess Affinity are pressed into mandatory service in one of two religious orders or be executed. But untamed magic is loose in the land, causing more and more mystical creatures to surface threatening the peaceful and largely orderly kingdom. We meet our protagonist, Byren Kingson, who's lack of real political responsibility as the second born son of his family makes him a natural fit for hunting the Affinity touched creatures. Hi-jinks ensue and Byren meets a rouge sorceress who foretells that he will eventually shed the blood of his brother, Lence, and thus become heir to the throne. With no interest in ruling Rolencia and a deep bond with his older twin, Byren dismisses the prophesy but fate and the heir's increasingly hostile and erratic behavior seem to be propelling Byren towards his prophesied fate.

Also taking center stage are Byren's younger siblings; Fyn and Piro. Fyn is Affinity touched and has been a novice at the abbey of one of the two gods of Rolencian religion. Halycon is the god of summer and his acolytes serve the crown, most notably as a militant order and in the production of food that will protect the nation's population during the harsh winter months. Fyn, now on the brink of choosing his path within the ranks of the monastic brothers, discovers that the political maneuverings and subsequent dangers of life at the Abbey are not so different than those that plague the more noble members of his family. The youngest member of the family, Piro is nearing an age where she will be expected to marry to strengthen the peace her father has managed to craft through three decades of compromise and swift retribution to those that would threaten Rolencia, but she has been hiding her own Affinity and that secret won't stay hidden for long.

With its surface similarities to George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, I really wanted to enjoy this first installment of Daniels' trilogy. The trio of young protagonists remind me of the children of House Stark, some of my favorites in the genre. But shaky execution and a lack of depth kept this story from really taking root and even less than a week after reading it, I find myself having a hard time remembering the things that I enjoyed, while its flaws are all too apparent.

I'll start with the characters. Daniels' manages to create a trio of characters that seem at first glance to be incredibly capable and intriguing, but upon further inspection seem to have little to no agency and are simply locked into a course of events that their station or stated character traits dictate. Despite growing evidence that that the future king is hot headed, self-important, and power mad, our principle protagonist, Byren, is dedicated to doing the right thing even if it means living in his brother's shadow.  His love for his family and friends is important to him even when it stands to cost him dearly. While loyalty is to be lauded, Byren often takes it beyond all reason. Byren chooses to believe in Lence even when it is obvious that he has ill intentions not only towards Byren but to those he holds most dear. He runs all over the kingdom, cleaning up after his siblings and generally is forever reacting to the actions of others.

That by itself would be forgivable, but neither Fyn or Piro are any different. Fyn is forever being threatened, bullied, or framed and his only solution, despite being well liked and a capable warrior besides, is to plan to run away. Piro's case seems a little easier to take because of her gender and younger age, but her sole purpose in the plot seems to be to sow chaos wherever she goes, and she never seems to pay the price for it.  Daniels' seems to think her thoughtless behavior and impulsiveness can be explained away, simply by pointing out that she in on the cusp of marriage every time she does something juvenile and foolish.

Most of the secondary characters suffer from a lack of development and come off rather flat. My main complaint is that Byren's love interest, Orrade's sister Elina, has virtually no redeeming qualities and is so under developed that when her fate takes a shocking turn, I couldn't bring myself to care. Byren's reactions seemed less authentic because I felt I was being told how much she meant to him without ever being shown a compelling reason why. Other characters seem one or two note caricatures at best, even cast members as important as King Rolen and Byren's brother, Lence.

There are a few other inconsistencies that bother me about Daniels' writing. The first is that despite telling us time and time again that Affinity beasts are rare, Byren seems to encounter one every time he ventures outside of civilization. If they are rare, then by all means, let them be rare. They begin to feel like random monster encounters from a D&D game when used this frequently. More bothersome is Daniels' handling of the homosexuality of Byren's best friend, Orrade. Orrade is in love with Byren, and has taken to wearing a symbol of a traitorous warrior society that has a reputation of being composed of homosexuals. His identification with the notorious cult causes both he and Byren no end of heartache. Nothing wrong with any of this, after all ancient Greece is full of this sort of thing. The problem comes with the tendency for every person to focus on the "lover of men" label as being synonymous with being a traitor to the crown. Almost every character in the novel reacts this way, regardless of their relationship to Orrade. If Daniels really wants to explore homophobia, why not drop the attachment to this traitorous organization entirely and deal with it head on. The obfuscation doesn't help and feels like cheating to me.

There was a lot of promising world building that never seemed to bear fruit, and the secondary plot line at the Abbey was full of potential, but the flatness and lack of agency in the characters make it doubtful that I will return to the characters of The King's Bastard. Which is a shame, because I wanted to like these characters and the world they inhabited. I had hoped Rolencia would be a welcome vacation home from Westeros, but sadly it's not.

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