Only seven minutes younger than Rolencia’s heir, Byren has never hungered for the throne. He laughs when a seer predicts that he will kill his twin. But the royal heir resents Byren’s growing popularity. Across the land the untamed magic of the gods wells up out of the earth’s heart. It sends exotic creatures to stalk the wintry nights and it twists men’s minds, granting them terrible visions. Those so touched are sent to the Abbey to control their gift, or die. At King Rolen’s court enemies plot to take his throne, even as secrets within his own household threaten to tear his family apart.
When Rowena Cory Daniells’ first trilogy was initially published over a period of three months in 2010, I had only recently discovered the book blogging world and hadn’t yet started A Fantastical Librarian. The books got a lot of buzz on the various blogs I followed and the books had definitely caught my eye. However, by the time I had my yearly Christmas book buying splurge came around, they’d been pushed aside by other new shinies and I never got around to them. So when the author contacted me to ask whether I’d like a copy of The King’s Bastard for review, I jumped on the chance. And I’m glad I finally got to start King Rolen’s Kin, because aside from some reservations, I really got caught up in this story.
Set in a secondary, medievalish world, one might complain that the foundations for the world of King Rolen’s Kin aren’t very original. Feuding kingdoms, check, magic users, check, magical monsters, check, and a polytheistic religion, check. And yes, this is all true, but at the same time, Daniells manages to infuse her world with details that make it seem fresh, such as the fact that these feuding kingdoms actually haven’t been feuding for the past thirty years, to name a big thing, or the fact that a lot of the travel done in the books is done on skates, as it’s set in the winter time, instead of on horseback, to name a smaller thing. This latter fact made my Dutch heart sing, as speed skating is the one sport the Dutch excel at beyond any other and I’ve been following it since I was knee high. But the fact of the matter is that this is a story of politics, power and ambition; while the world’s physical properties are important to set the scene and create obstacles and advantages in how the story plays out, it is a backdrop in service to this political struggle, in a book such as The King’s Bastard world building will be reflected far more clearly through the characters’ realities and experiences. For example, Rolencia’s magic is the untamed Affinity, thought to be the power of the gods, but what really shapes this magic isn’t what it can do, it is the fact that it is forbidden to all but members of the Abbey. Rolencia’s religion is kathenotheistic, with a god of Winter, Sylion, served by nuns and a goddess of Summer, Halcyon, served by monks—in itself an interesting division of devotion. Its ban on magic users not part of the Abbey shapes a lot of the story and the reactions several of our characters have to Affinity. Another such building block is this society’s stance on homosexuality, to put it mildly, it doesn’t approve, partly because of the connection to the Servants of Palos, a group that tried to depose the king decades earlier. While I could see how it functions as part of the plot, it made me very uncomfortable, which might have been the point. The various reactions to one of the characters’ revelation that
he was gay not only run the gamut from easy acceptance to outright rejection, but the divide between them seems to follow the line between the good guys and the villains. The only more in-depth and conflicted reactions we see are those of the main characters, especially Byren.
The story is told through three points of view, those of Byren, Fyn and Piro, King Rolen’s three youngest children. It is often the case when a story has multiple viewpoints and storylines, not all of them are as interesting or connect as well to the reader; in this case, the one I had the hardest time getting into was Piro’s. While she definitely grew on me and by the end of the book I really enjoyed her point of view, her story overlapped a lot with Byren’s, which at times seemed a little redundant, as we moved away from Byren when I’d really rather have stuck with him, even if Piro could reveal something to us that Byren didn’t know. This seems a testament to how likable and well written Byren is! Fyn’s story is mostly set away from the court and deals with the power struggle in the Abbey. I love me some political machinations in my fantasy and The King’s Bastard had this in spades, not least in the Abbey, so I really enjoyed Fyn’s story. But Byren was my favourite by far. At times a little oblivious to how his actions could be interpreted by others, regardless of his intent, he is a good-hearted guy, who genuinely wants to do what’s right and who enjoys the life he’s leading when the book opens up. Daniells proceeds to turn this life pretty much on its head and Byren has to move with the punches or be knocked out. He does so admirably, even if at times he falters. His friendship with Orrade is one of the cores of his story and while at times this aspect was a little frustrating for me, his loyalty to Orrade in the face of the latter’s disinheritance and what he has to face was amazing.
Not all the characters worked for me though. Lence, Byren’s twin, just made me want to throttle him. He seems to have a huge chip on his shoulder and we never really find out why. Cobalt’s insinuations fall on fertile ground with Lence, but why is his ground so fertile, it can’t just be overwrought ambition. But if Lence got on my nerves, I had a far larger problem with Lord Cobalt, the biggest villain of the piece. The ease with which Cobalt manages to manipulate all but the chosen few just baffled me. It actually became a bit irking that people would so easily believe whatever Cobalt does or says, unless it was all due to Affinity, which would be a cop out. While there was some explanation for the king, queen and Lence to believe Cobalt due to past dealings, this doesn’t explain why others fall so easily under his spell. Hopefully we’ll find further explanation in the next book. Despite my dislike for Cobalt, I had to admire Daniells’ craft in the scenes where Byren tries to unmask him; she succeeded in getting across Byren’s frustration, his feeling of impotence and rage so well, that I was ready to throw things every time I came out of one of those scenes.
And that is what I’ll take away from the book the most, admiration for Daniells’ craft. The story is enthralling and I loved the political machinations in it, but what’s stayed with me most is the power of the emotions Daniells drew from me, whether it was anger at Cobalt’s plots, frustration at Byren’s inability to get through to people or sadness for things and people lost. The King’s Bastard had a lot of familiar strands in its make-up, but it was unexpectedly powerful book and I really had a blast with it. If you’re looking for a strong traditional epic fantasy series with lots of political scheming, King Rolen’s Kin with its first book The King’s Bastard is a great find. Look for reviews of book two and three later in the year, as book two is winging its way to me from The Book Depository as I type and I picked book three up a few weeks ago at the ABC. In addition, Rowena Cory Daniells’ new series The Outcast Chronicles has just been launched, with its first book Besieged out from Solaris now.
This book was sent to me for review by the author.