The Born Queen: A flawed but readable end to an interesting series
First things first: this is the last of a four book series. Do not read this book unless you've read the others. And if you've read the others, you're probably going to read this book, no matter what I say.
Epic fantasy is a tricky genre to write, because the stakes are almost constantly being raised. You have standard tropes that have existed for nearly a century, and ignoring them will get you the ire of fans expecting their noble knights, mysterious elves, mystical wizards, and the like. On the other hand, you always have to come up with something new or else people will dismiss your hard work as Tolkien-copying pablum (which I always felt unfair, as there are plenty of other fantasy writers these folks are ripping off as well). Recent masters of the genre, such as George R.R. Martin and Jacqueline Carey, tend towards greying up the traditional white vs. black conflict of these kind of stories, making the heroes less heroic and sometimes giving villains legitimate reasons for their actions.
Greg Keyes' "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" series takes an interesting tack with this, especially in this last volume. There are three thrones of mystic power (essentially sources of magic) in the world, and whichever one is in ascendance affects how the world works-- the three correspond roughly to religion, nature, and demonic power, but only very approximately. The trick is that none of these three can really be called "good"-- and the sedos throne, the one that corresponds to religion and the one who our main character Anne Dare, now Empress of the realm of Crotheny, has been using the most, could be the most dangerous of them all. Being suddenly told that the magic source that several main characters had been using for the past three books may in fact be making things worse is a shocking revelation.
Also, as the book goes along, characters like Anne who have accumulated mystical power become less themselves and more pawns of the ancient mystic powers they had been using, which now seem to be using them. This leads to at least two protagonist characters suddenly and with the best of intentions essentially becoming villains, as the result of their actions are revealed. It is a shock to have your expectations so completely shaken up, and this element was probably my favorite part of the book.
Another thing I liked was that, although this book is much shorter than, for instance, a volume of Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series, it is nearly as complex. Keyes is able to balance 5 or so distinct plotlines and make most of them feel fully developed. Each plotline was interesting, and I found myself eager to find out what was going to happen in the next chapter.
Unfortunately, I believe Keyes realized somewhere around page 400 that he needed to end the book. This makes all of the plotlines seem a bit rushed after this point, so while the characters are interesting, the plot moved so fast it can't really show this off. The last chapter especially seemed to have way too much going on, as if Keyes realized he was about to hit a length cap while still only being 3/4 of the way through, and consequently rushed to the finish line.
Finally, I was disappointed after reading through the entire series that something established in the first chapter (that some of the people of this world came from the vanished Roanoke colony on Earth and that Virginia Dare was an important figure in the world of this story's backstory) was NEVER really dealt with or explained. I honestly do not understand why Keyes would do something like that. This is the equivalent of the Targaryens from "A Song of Ice and Fire" being descended from Amelia Earhart, but that fact having no relevance on the plot in the slightest.
While being well-written and doing interesting things with the whole "good vs. evil" dichotomy of epic fantasy, this book is strangely paced, which cut into my enjoyment of it. If you've read the rest of the series, read this, but if not it's not something you have to read.
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