For a while now I’ve been ruminating on the role of the medieval setting in fantasy, and more specifically the kingdom. Monarchies are (largely) obsolete these days, though Charles Stross has some interesting ideas about how the divine right of kings could intersect with extreme libertarianism. It’s interesting, then, this obsession we have with a form of government that is inherently unstable, unfair, and usually just crap. I mean, yes, it makes for good conflict, and conflict is the heart of good storytelling. Yet I can’t help but feel it’s somewhat ironic that we sit here, cheering for an heir to take back her kingdom, instead of hoping for a rebellion to take the monarchy down.
The Riven Kingdom has provoked another round of rumination, for preserving the continuity of the crown is central to the plot. Indeed, it’s practically the entire story: Rhian’s father, King Eberg, dies. With her older brothers predeceasing him, Rhian is the sole heir—but a woman has never ruled as queen in her own right, and Rhian is also a minor. So the grasping high church official, Prolate Marlan, schemes to marry her to a simpleton and rule through this new king. Rhian has other plans. Aided by Dexterity Jones, a toymaker with an unlikely name and the unlikely help of a messenger from God, Rhian escapes Marlan’s clutches, marries her childhood love, and attempts to claim the crown.
A Song of Ice and Fire this is not: there is little in the way of ambiguity here when it comes to good guys and bad guys. Whereas it’s not entirely clear who should win the Iron Throne (go Team Daenerys, woo!), Karen Miller makes it plan that Rhian is the only person for the job and that Marlan is bad, bad, bad. In fact, he’s so stereotypically evil-beyond-redemption that it’s almost embarrassing. Fortunately, the rest of the book is steeped in enough moral exploration to make up for this fault.
Rhian begins the story as an intelligent but still emotionally immature woman. Understandably upset by her father’s lingering death, she snaps at those close to her. This tendency to snap doesn’t actually go away, unfortunately, and I found myself frustrated by how she would seem to yell and stamp any time someone so much as raises an alternative perspective. But I don’t mean to imply that she is the picture of the spoiled princess: far from it; Rhian is a capable successor to her father who merely lacks the experience that age often brings. It’s watching her acquire more experience and more confidence in herself as a ruler during her trials on the road that make this book so enjoyable. Rhian learns from those in her company and gradually begins to construct her own personal code for what it means to be the queen.
A similar change comes over Dexterity, who gets the ball rolling when he persuades Rhian to run away from the capital and declare herself queen openly. His motivation is supernatural, coming to him in the form of his dead wife, Hettie. At first, Dexterity is a bit of a Fool: humorous, carefree, and irreverent, he’s happy to trade quips and roll his eyes beyond someone’s back. Gradually he becomes more serious, more focused, as the significance of his role in these events becomes apparent. And, of course, he has to adjust to being a prophet who can heal people through miracles. Because being on fire but not consumed by it is totally not weird at all.
Perhaps the character who surprised me most was Helfred, Rhian’s personal chaplain. He begins as a stock thorn in Rhian’s side, a creature of Marlan, who is his uncle. He whines and sniffles in that unctuous way of unsavoury priests in fiction. Yet he stands up to Rhian, falls in with her, and ends up taking great risks. Unlike his uncle, he shows himself to be a genuine man of faith. And of all the characters, he is probably the one who changes the most dramatically. If there’s anyone who demonstrates Miller’s careful attention to character development, it’s Helfred.
Unless it’s Zandakar, of course.
This is the second book in the Godspeaker trilogy. I read the first book recently enough that my memory of it is still quite clear. I was intrigued but not captivated by it. It was just quite different, which can be good but also unsettling. The Riven Kingdom is much more conventional in narration and dialogue. I wonder what it would be like to read this book first and then tackle Empress, for the latter doesn’t really encourage one to continue reading the series. Of course, this approach comes at the cost of not realizing Zandakar’s significance or the backstory within the Mijak interludes of the book.
Zandakar is no longer the proud warrior he was in Empress. Beaten and broken, sold into slavery, he is rescued by Dexterity and nursed back to health. He feels guilty for his role in killing and enslaving literally countries’ worth of people. And this is a secret he can’t share, except with Dexterity. I like how Miller realistically portrays the slow, awkward development of communication between Zandakar and Dexterity. There’s no magical translation spell, no convenient crutch that allows one to speak the other’s language through anything other than patience and practice. As Zandakar becomes more fluent in Ethrean we are treated to more of his viewpoint and get to see how much he has changed since the events of the first book.
Zandakar exists as a foil for Rhian, the gentle queen. He teaches her his hotas, the exercises that help hone his focus and skills as a warrior, at her request. She develops the ability to kill by instinct, demonstrating this starkly at a pivotal moment in the book. Rhian realizes that she cannot and will not shed blood of her own accord. Zandakar accuses her of not wanting or willing to be queen. For him, ruling and killing go hand in hand. Rhian rejects this emphatically, thereby establishing one of the pillars of her personal code of ruling. But she wouldn’t have done this without Zandakar’s guidance and training.
Moreover, Zandakar is a symbol for what awaits Ethrea when the Mijak warhost arrives. Beyond the immediate story of Rhian’s accession lies the impending arrival of the horde that is pouring out of Mijak. I assume this will come to a head in the third book. Those closest to Zandakar, those like Rhian who have seen him kill to defend them, understand how terrifying he is. Now multiply that by the thousands … it beggars belief. Ethrea is not in for good times.
The Riven Kingdom is definitely a cut above Empress. If you managed to get through the first book but, like me, were hesitant to carry on, I’d say you should give it a try. And even if you gave Empress a pass, it might be worth giving this book shot. As far as fantasy books go, there is very little in the way of new ideas here. As I remarked earlier, it is essentially the basic inheritance conflict plot. But it’s competently executed, with characters who undergo some subtle change and development along the way. Sometimes, that’s sufficient for an enjoyable little book.