Rowena Cory Daniells is an author I've had my eye on for a while now, ever since Besieged (the first book in her Outcast Chronicles) made my Waiting on Wednesday list back in May. So, when she reached out to me last month to ask if I'd be interested in reviewing both trilogies, I jumped at the chance.
The King's Bastard is the first volume in her King Rolen's Kin trilogy, and it packs enough unique touches (not to mention surprises) in the first dozen chapters to immediately make it one of those stay-up-late, can't-put-down, just-one-more-chapter kind of reads. At its heart, this is a story of conflict, the kinds of conflict that can divide friends and families, as well as empires. It's also a story of outcasts and undesirables, of the unwanted and the unneeded, an approach that serves to attract (rather than alienate) the reader.
In terms of plot, there's a lot about this first volume that will be familiar to any long-time reader of fantasy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. We have a King who has become complacent, leaving him blind to the cracks in his empire; feuding heirs to the throne (Byren & Lence), once friends who are being slowly driven apart by jealousy; a pair of younger siblings (Fyn & Piro) with a power and a future of their own, but no right to rule; and a Queen who is full of secrets, the heir to an unwanted legacy that threatens everything. It sounds very much like your standard medieval fantasy soap opera, but there are several elements that elevate it above the competition.
Even if the elements are familiar, however, the characters themselves are very well developed. Byren, Fyn, and Piro (our three POVs within the novel) are likeable, admirable characters to whom we can relate, and for whom we naturally find ourselves cheering. Lence, Cobalt, and Rejulas are equally unlikable, but characters with motivations that we can understand . . . even if we don't have to like them. Orrade is, by far, one of the most intriguing supporting characters I've come across in years, and I suspect the Queen may have more potential than we've seen so far.
Those conflicts I mentioned earlier? Rowena does a masterful job of balancing them against one another, using them not just to illuminate each other, but to force the reader into confronting their own prejudices. Rolencia is a kingdom where where being naturally touched by forbidden magic or sexuality is more worthy of scorn and derision than deliberately choosing to be cruel, treacherous, or ambitious. Ultimately, it is the shameful taint of his own family, along with the unrequited love of his best friend, that places Byren at the centre of so much conflict - and it's his own reaction to both that elevates him above his brother.
In terms of world-building, The King's Bastard offers a lot to appreciate, but it's the little touches, like armies skating upon the frozen canals or Affinity-touched beasts stalking the forests, that shine brightest here. There's no artificial attempt to create huge pantheons of gods and goddesses, or any needlessly complex allegorical story of creation. Instead, the mythology of the world is simple, effective, and genuine, intertwined with the presence of Affinity. Similarly, the genealogy is largely straightforward, forgoing the exhaustive family trees and legacies that often bog down these stories, in favour of just enough political marriages and well-documented bastards to add some necessary colour.
While I found the dialogue in a few scenes to be a bit too much like that of a soap opera, it generally works quite well. Much like the mythology, it comes across as genuine, with none of the grandiose speeches that so often seem out of place, inserted only to impress the reader. The narrative itself is solid, colourful where it can be, but also restrained where it needs to be. More than anything, however, it is the pacing that you really notice here. Rowena keeps the story moving, propelling the reader from one chapter to another. While this is by no means a light or insignificant read, it is a very quick one, which is always welcome when dealing with a 640 page tome.
If I were to have one complaint about the story, it's that the characters sometimes delay too long in delivering important information. On the one hand, it's entirely reasonable to expect that they might be distracted by urgent concerns, but there were a few instances where I found myself shaking the book because Bryen simply forgot to deliver some significant news. It's a minor quibble, and one that is largely limited to the beginning of the novel, but it annoyed me enough that I had to call it out. Having said that, Rowena smartly avoids relying on coincidence or deus ex machina to drive the climax of this first volume, which is refreshing.
All-in-all, a good, solid, page-turning read, and one that has a lot to offer for fans of traditional fantasy. I rarely read series books back-to-back anymore, but I'm already eager to get started in on The Uncrowned King.