One might think that 600 pages would take awhile to get through, but reading The King’s Bastard was surprisingly quick. I both was impressed and annoyed with the story. However, despite any issues I have, I want to preface this review with the fact that I am curious enough to try the second in the trilogy and see how things develop. The the great thing about epic fantasy with political intrigue is that it has the addictive properties of crack. Shifting allegiances, betrayals, and the few friendships that stick through the turmoil… It’s exactly why A Song of Ice and Fire is so incredibly popular. (And I think Daniells includes a few elements in homage to that forerunner series.) A lot of The King’s Bastard is familiar. The title, the characters, the plot are all nothing new to the genre. Consider the title: The King’s Bastard. There is certainly a preoccupation with bastard children in fantasy and, especially, epic fantasy but the fixation seems out of place with this book. After all, the story is mostly about the heir’s legitimate twin… Or look at the characters, which break a very personal pet peeve of mine: changing a letter or two to make a name “fantasic.” Byren is really not very much more fantastic than Byron. Nor Elina instead of Elena… Nor Lence instead of Lance…
Anyway, the story focuses on Byren, second son of the king, and the troubles plaguing Rolencia. Byren has his own problems from the start, beginning with his best (male) friend confesses to loving Byren when the two are besieged by wild, magical animals. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem except to be a “love of men” or “Servant of Palos” is to be a traitor to the kingdom. Of course, putting that worry on top of the issues of the political problems of the kingdom and the two (and Byren especially) are in an impossible situation.
Honestly, there are a lot of interesting things about the novel, but the best part about The King’s Bastard, aside from the political betrayals and shenanigans, is the element of forbidden magic. Like the outlawing of homosexuality, there are similar controls against anyone who can wield magic without the guiding influence of religious monks and nuns. Some of the absolutely best scenes come from conflicts regarding magic. Of course, this might have to do with the fact that Piro, Byren’s little sister, and Myrella, the queen, are some of the best characters in the book. Particularly, I found Piro’s point of view sections to be enjoyable. She was interesting and human without the issues of her older brothers. Honestly, Lence is beyond hope for being a likable character, but Byren really has a chance, if he stops being a brat. Or just plain skeevy. (Sorry, the scene with Elena at the end is absolutely unforgivable.)
There’s more wrong than just with Byren. I mean, I was fed up with King Rolen, Fyn, Orrie, and Elina. That’s a large portion of the cast. The most major problem was that if the cast had actually just sat down and spoke with each other they may have realized that the likelihood of family members betraying each other one by one is less likely than one stranger as the traitor… But, no!
The last complaint I have is that the Servants of Palos thing is never really used as well as the story calls for. I really hope that Daniells explores the history, current views, and Orrie’s feelings for Byren in a lot more depth, because right now it all seems a bit flat. And that’s saying a lot since I love to delve into issues of sexuality. It’s so rare to have a gay fantasy character that it should automatically be a treat. Instead, I spent a great deal of the book pondering the history of the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. I mean, I can on some level get it and the likelihood (there are historical precedence for gays as the majority group in a military-like group, such as the Sacred Band of Thebes), but if so much of Orrie and Byren’s life depends on people’s reaction to Orrie’s orientation and the rumors abour their relationship, I need a bit more of the historical specifics. Right now it’s just too much: “The untamed magic people and gay men tried to bring our country to ruin–we shall hate and persecute them forever!”
I’m still trying to figure out why this novel is so compulsively readable, because my list of nitpicks is pretty high. It’s got to be the political intrigue addiction hooking me. Maybe I’m just a betrayal or drama junkie… I will say that Daniells has a good idea for the melodrama of human relations–and if anything keeps epic fantasy fresh, it’s drama that would do it best.
So, no, I wasn’t amazed with this first volume, but I will be back for seconds.