At a very young age my older brother handed me The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks and I fell in love. Up to that point I had been stuck with such light, kiddy books as The Baby Sitters Club or Encyclopedia Brown - never knowing about this whole other, magical world. But when I stepped into the pages that epic fantasy, I was completely and utterly lost. And although I no longer name Brooks as my favorite author, I still thank him (and his books) for introducing me to the magical world of epic fantasy. He unavoidably led me to Tolkien - for which I am forever grateful - and is actually one of the main reasons I have never been able to control myself when presented with any sort of sweeping fantasy saga since. Which is why I had high hopes and was immediately rewarded with a bit of bookish nostalgia upon opening Liane Merciel's epic fantasy debut The River Kings' Road - I was getting to step back into my favorite genre.
For generations the provinces of Oakharn and Langmyr have been at war. Separated by the river and years of death and mistrust, a tenuous peace has finally been established between the two regions - but all that changes when a small Oakharn town, Willowfield, and its inhabitants are decimated during the visit from a feudal lord, Sir Galefrid of Langmyr, visiting on a mission of peace. Only a knight in service to Sir Galefrid, Brys Tarnell, and Galefrid's infant son, and heir, Winston survive the tragedy of Willowfield. Understanding the need to take the baby to safety, Brys convinces a young, unmarried mother named Odosse to care for the baby on their perilous journey. But there are many who would see the child and its protectors dead - men who would go so far as to engage the help of the Thorns, a group of sadistic and foreign sorcerers more deadly than entire armies.
Those familiar with the epic fantasy genre will immediately fall into step with Liane Merciel's solid worldbuilding. All the time-honored types are present: the inns, mercenaries, archery contests, evil mages, knights, ladies and bandits aplenty. What sets it apart however is how this common backdrop is sprinkled throughout with a most impressive collection of decidedly human characters. Oh, don't mistake me: the bad guys are really quite nasty and there are a few truly 'good' guys, but even those characters are not sickeningly so. But what I found most interesting is what I like to call her 'gray' characters': men like Brys Tarnell, a moral-less sellsword by all accounts who again and again shows courage and cunning beyond an ordinary knighthood with a past full of intriguing secrets. And then there's the man who would be king, Leferic, Sir Galefrid's younger, bookish brother: upon first glance he is truly despicable but with closer inspection, you find his motives to be pure even if his methods questionable. And that's just scratching the surface: there are religious knights who cling desperately to their vows even when faced with heart-breaking challenges and simple townsfolk who fairly come to life in their variances. There was much to enjoy about The River Kings' Road - even if it was paced rather slowly, I understand the need for adequate plot development in something this large scale and I will eagerly anticipate Merciel's next novel of Ithelas. I'm all for reminding myself why I started reading fantasy books in the first place.
Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
book source: provided by the publisher, Gallery Books