Briar KingSo far, The Briar King is a good, gripping read for a fan of fantasy, like myself, but also irritating in some important ways, both as a fan of fantasy and a general lover of fiction.

It’s pretty much required these days that no one right a standalone scifi/fantasy novel anymore. It’s simply not done. So I’m okay with it being the first of a series. And while it ends, clearly leading into another, it’s not an annoying cliffhanger. And Keyes avoids other pitfalls of the fantasy series by not letting the number of main characters get out of control. There are basically five main characters, but he keeps them paired up much of the time, so we don’t have a massive sprawl problem.

The world is generally well done. The ‘history’ is good, though I rarely get a strong feel for the cultures, except in the story’s heartland, which is kind of your generic fantasy land with technology similar to 14th century Europe, so knights on horseback in articulated plate armor with big swords. Some of the other areas are less well described.

There is a bit of a villain problem, because the world spanning threat, the titular Briar King… doesn’t seem so bad. Kind of nature guy. Does not inspire fear in me. Some of the human villains do – they’re pretty nasty. But it’s hard for me to feel that concerned about a apocalpytic baddie who comes across more like a less damp version of the Swamp Thing, just doing his thing and keeping his swamp (or, in this case, forest) safe. But that wasn’t what bothered me most. No, it was the names.

The names are lazy. Some are basic English names, like Anne and Neil. There’s an occasional attempt to get something more archaic or fantasy sounding into it, but generally, they’re cribbed straight from the British Isles and (disconcertingly) Italy. At least take some time to look up some old Celtic or Saxon names that sound a little different, a little alien and not immediately recognizable. What he did just creates a jarring clash. And… ugh Virgenya. A place in his world where people are and speak Virgenyan. I live next too Virginia and used to be a Virginian, so this just takes me out of it ever time he does it, which is pretty frequent. Oh, and there’s an ancient, founding heroine named ‘Genya Dare.’ Since ‘Virgenya’ is clearly in honor of ‘Genya,’ let’s put those together, shall we: Virgenya Dare. That’s right, the first child born in the English colonies in America. Ugh.

The good bits generally outweigh the bad, though. I’m glad I read it. But… Virginia Dare. Ugh.

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