Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Daniells, The King's Bastard (2010)

Rowena Cory Daniells, King Rolen's Kin: The King's Bastard. Solaris Books, 2010. Pp. 640. ISBN 9781907519017. $7.99.

Reviewed by Sam Kelly

The King's Bastard is most definitely a book that wears its subgenres proudly. The title, cover, map, and blurb all let us know we're in for kings-and-princes stories in a recently founded fantasy kingdom, with inventively spelt mythological monsters (foenix, unistag—which, sadly, has a traditional unicorn horn rather than a single stag's horn like a tree—and leogryf, for instance), fractious barons, and a neighbouring country with which it may or may not go to war. On the other hand, it is an interesting subversion of the traditional high-fantasy tropes; neither kingdom qualifies unambiguously as good guys or bad guys, which is a pleasant relief. The cover radiates “dark fantasy”, with a brooding, wild-haired gentleman carrying either four dangerous-looking weapons or a set of extremely gothic bagpipes. (The dim mood lighting makes it rather difficult to tell which.)

The presence of all those monsters is quite neatly explained within the text, and tied in neatly to the kingdom's social structure, but Cory Daniells has (thankfully) resisted the temptation to explain away everything here. There are two more books to come, but we knew that from the front cover, so it's no surprise that this one ends with the beginning of a new plotline; the old reaches some resolution, though, and the next two books are due out in the next two months in any case.

There is one element that is both new and praiseworthy here, and that is the treatment of bisexuality. Male-male love is both socially and politically taboo in the kingdom, so a young man's impulsive confession (and the characters here are realistic young people, with all the plot-driving impulsiveness and passion that implies, without the annoying childishness it can often default to) lands our protagonists in rather a lot of plot, and affects their relationships with each other in subtly sketched ways rather than taking the obvious paths of condemnation or immediate acceptance.

If there is one thing I dislike about The King's Bastard, it is the unsubtlety of our major villain; I have seen this same conspiracy before, and if I'm marking time waiting for the protagonists to catch up with me as a reader then I expect a payoff at the end, with a new and unexpected twist on the plan when it's done. I did not get that here, which was disappointing. The quality of the prose is unremarkable; there is rather more internal monologuing and infodumping than I like, but it is still engaging, and the only reason that it didn't keep me up all night was that I had finished it by bedtime.

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