Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Too often a good fantasy book with a solid story suffers because its author is too busy showing off the awesome world in which the story takes place. Not so for The Briar King! No, instead of bad worldbuilding ruining good writing, Keyes' writing ruins his superb worldbuilding.
The Briar King starts with a prelude 2000 years in the past, when humanity unites to overthrow its Skasloi slave masters. In the present, humanity has now divided into the bickering nations across Everon. As political matters point to war, the eponymous god-like Briar King appears to be awakening after millennia of slumber, and no one is quite sure what this means for humanity—except that it can't be good. Caught between the hammer of war and anvil of nature, our protagonists find themselves with few friends and even fewer options.
I loved the world of Everon itself. Greg Keyes does a wonderful job at establishing the relationship among various nations without resorting to too much exposition. We get a sense of the deep enmity between the Skernish and Hansa and of the amity between Liery and Crotheny. Overarching it all is the Church, predicated on the veneration of saints and their sedoi, places of power where saints rested or parts of them have been buried. Finally, we get glimpses of the history of Everon between the overthrow of the Skasloi two thousand years ago and the present day—mention of some sort of continent-wide empire known as the Hegemony, a tyrannical ruler known as the Black Jester, and related conflicts called "the Warlock Wars." All of this Keyes weaves together into a tight historical background for the present-day drama. And that's why it's so disappointing that the actual conflict in the book is so underwhelming.
The principal fault lies in the characters, who are, for the most part, stock. Anne Dare is the rebellious princess who must grow up and fulfil her destiny; Austra is the trusted and devoted maidservant; Neil is the knight in shining armour, immune to temptation and incorruptible; Aspar is the grumpy old man; William is the good-natured king who never suspects betrayal; and Robert is the deceitful brother who kills his sister out of jealousy and arranges his brother's death to start a war. Not only do these characters act like their tropes, but their dialogue is similarly uninspired to the point of corniness:
A touch of anger at last entered Robert’s voice. "But you'd already decided that, hadn't you, Wilm? If you thought me a brother, you would never have betrothed Lesbeth without asking me. I could never forgive you that."
There were moments when optimism got the better of me and it looked like the book might improve, like the characters might actually break out of their moulds and do something new. For instance, take when Neil and Fastia have a few too many and come close to sleeping together, despite the fact that the former bodyguard to the latter's mother—the queen. I thought they might actually do it and then regret it later. But no, Neil is too pure for that, and so they just have to deal with unrequited love for the next several chapters until Fastia dies at the hands of the Plot. Whenever one of the protagonists gets in a tight enough spot that they might not make it, something inexplicable happens to save them: Anne makes a knight go blind, Neil goes into a berserker rage, etc. None of the conflicts faced by the main characters feel compelling because none feel dangerous. The only mistake the protagonists make is not being genre savvy.
The story itself suffers from first-book-itis, essentially functioning to set up the rest of the tetralogy. It introduces us to the main characters and manoeuvres them into place for the conflicts of the next three books. As much as Keyes tries to create an interesting story, the stock characters and standard fantasy tropes left me unimpressed and unamused. I never felt surprised, or even outraged. Mostly I was passive, maybe even a little bored, as page after page of predictable plot passed me by.
Now, any genre has its established tropes, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Briar King, however, takes that to a whole new level. There's very little that's original about its characters or its plot; just a few names have been changed to protect the exploited. This is formulaic fantasy at its most derivative.