Obvious title is obvious. Well now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the actual blogging.
I just finished The Briar King by Greg Keyes last night, and I haven’t been this disappointed or bored with a book in a long time. But there’s something to be said for sticking with less-than-stellar books, especially if you’re a writer. Sometimes I think it’s just as valuable to learn what not to do.
(Before I begin, I want to say that Keyes is probably a fine writer. I haven’t read any of his other books, but considering his bibliography I’m betting he has skills. The Briar King just wasn’t too my liking. But this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction and I’ll explain why)
First of all Keyes does a great job of worldbuilding in this novel. The depth he put into developing the different countries, peoples, dialects (especially dialects) is pretty remarkable. There were two problems that ended up squandering all of this worldbuilding potential though. One: the map included in my mass market paperback was so damn tiny I couldn’t read any of the words, so I had no idea where any of the places were in relation to each other. Two: nothing really interesting happens to capitalize on all this awesome development.
I get that The Briar King is part of a series so not everything is going to be resolved at the end, but there’s a limit to how much slack I’m willing to cut it. Almost nothing gets explained and the characters barely grow (and that is definitely me being generous). The chivalrous knight continues to be a noble knight. The monk trying to unravel an ancient conspiracy is still in the dark. The grumpy old guy is slightly less grumpy, but still about the same. Every character feels like they were taken from a barrel of stock epic fantasy characters. And the love interest for the grumpy old guy–she kind of just gets thrown in there and next thing I know they’re confessing their love to each other with barely any set up or even mention of her.
It’s strange, the book is filled with action and bloody, gruesome fights, but I can’t remember a time where so much action left me so bored. I couldn’t care about the characters, their motivations were shallow and one dimensional, and the world-ending threat was still as vague as ever by the end. I was happy to put the book down and move on.
For me The Briar King is a great reminder that even if you’re writing a series, you still have to give your readers something. Star Wars: A New Hope was written more as a stand-alone so things wrap up nicely, but even Empire Strikes Back, which was clearly designed with a sequel in mind, resolves enough plot lines to give the audience some sense of resolution despite creating even bigger questions: will Luke take Vader up on his offer later on? Will Han get unfrozen and rescued from Jabba the Hutt? What will happen to the Rebels after they got their asses handed to them down on Hoth?
The Briar King ends with all questions, and one particularly damning one: why should I care? As a writer you have to constantly ask yourself: what are the stakes here for each character? Why should the reader care if the princess gets rescued or not? Why is it so necessary to stop the bad guy from taking over the kingdom? If the writer has done their job properly the reader will know why the bad buy needs to be stopped from taking over the kingdom–because he’ll outlaw dancing in the kingdom and the people need dancing to appease the rain gods, of course.
So sadly I’ll end The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone with this question and answer: do I care enough to keep reading? No, I don’t.