Monday, April 18, 2011

The Chronicles of King Rolen's Kin - Rowena Cory Daniells

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 the throne, even as secrets within his own household threaten to tear his family apart.

High Fantasy is a complicated genre – I find it incredibly appealing (all that magic, political intrigue, warriors, quests – it’s just about irresistible) but at the same time very easy to spoil. A little too much gore, a plot that is too complex to follow, too many characters to try to like, writing that starts to turn stale, and I might lose interest (I’ve had it happen with Robin Hobb and Terry Goodkind, for example).

My latest foray into the genre was with Rowena Cory Daniells’ The Chronicles of King Rolen’s Kin and it was not a disappointment. I had never heard about her before I saw the beautiful cover art in the bookstore (I find the second tome particularly pretty), and as a complete bookaholic, I had to have them.

The main story revolves around a battle for succession in the kingdom of Rolencia – it is a tale of political intrigue and complicated familial relations (a newly acknowledged bastard, some healthy sibling rivalry, a few dangerous secrets, and the scene is set). I love political mayhem and I found that the plot of this book had the perfect balance of complexity and just plain misinformation (innocent situations that turn into something else, to our despair as readers actively engaged in the fate of our favourite characters). This balance is the key to a plot that keeps us immersed in the story (I must have read the three tomes in four or five days) but never confuses the reader with too many fiddly details.

The universe where the action takes place is also very well developed – the author pays attention to small details that give it life in our eyes – my favourite was the favourite transportation method – skating the frozen canals during the winter (I found that so refreshingly original!). The system of magic – called Affinity here – is well construed, and well thought out – I loved all the ‘Affinity beasts’ that can cause problems but also be favoured companions and have an important role to play in the novels.

The magic is also the source of many of the problems in the world – not only because it attracts dangerous animals, but also because it is extremely restricted in its use – a person with affinity has two choices, either devote his or her life to the abbeys and learn to use it ‘for the greater good’ or risk death as a Renegade Practitioner. So there is not much freedom to chose, as the King rules with a heavy hand. The price one pays to live with secrets is an interesting leitmotiv in the series – particularly with Piro, the young princess who is actively trying to hide her powers. But with the other characters as well, in smaller measures, and this makes them vulnerable, but also extremely engaging.

The second volumes is basically a follow-up to the first – a continual building of tension that picks up after the near destruction of the kingdom and the escape or capture of most of the characters. The relief from tension arrives with the third volume, that resolves most of the previous volumes story-arcs, while also opening up to the rest of the universe imagined – particularly the rival kingdom of Merofynia, from whence most of the villains come.

As for the denouement – I am almost afraid to say. My reaction was something like: “What??? No, no, no, no, no, no – I want mooooooore!!! There has to be mooooore!!! Where is the fourth volume???”

Because the truth is, while much has been resolved (most of the political intrigue, for example, is completely settled), much is also left in suspense – particularly relating to personal relationships and romantic entanglements, but also the reclaiming of a whole occupied kingdom. I found the ending abrupt – there really is no other word. It does not take away from all that came before – it is a very good series – but it is the major problem in my opinion: I don’t much like to be left hanging after becoming so very enmeshed in a story. So I certainly recommend the books – but beware the sudden fall that comes right after the end of the action. No awkward epilogues here!

Addendum: I was very happy to learn that there will be three more books, sometime in the distant, distant future. Apparently the author has one more trilogy planned, but wants to finish a new series she is working on before tackling the project.

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