The Charnel Prince is the second book in the "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" series by Greg Keyes. With The Briar King, Keyes created a masterpiece of a first book, so much so that it would be almost impossible to keep it up at that level. He tries very hard, however, and almost succeeds. The Charnel Prince suffers a bit from "middle book syndrome," but not as much as in some other series I've seen. Keyes keeps the tension high, introducing some wonderful characters to take the place of those killed off in The Briar King. The book is marred only by a massive coincidence that, while it can be explained, still strains the suspension of disbelief.
The Briar King is awake, and with his awakening comes the threat of massive change to the world. The royal family of the kingdom of Crotheny has been torn apart by assassinations and conspiracies. Muriele, wife of the murdered King William, must hold things together in the capital city as plots spin around her. Her son is "touched by the saints" and does not pay much attention to this world, and William's mistresses are hovering around. One of them, however, may be of more use than Muriele would have thought. Meanwhile, the head of the church sends Aspar, the holter of the King's Forest, out to kill the Briar King and end this madness. But is the Briar King the horrible force that everybody says he is? Princess Anne, having narrowly escaped the destruction of the Coven of Saint Cer, is chased all over Vitellio to prevent her from getting back to the capital. All these various threads, plus a few others, come together as an unspeakable evil is being spread across the land. Is this part of the destruction the Briar King is said to bring, or will the Briar King prevent it? And will our heroes survive to care which is true?
The biggest compliment I can give to Keyes is that I wish this series was done. Right now. I want to be able to read the rest of this and see how it comes out. Unlike in The Briar King, Keyes ends this book on something of a cliffhanger. While Keyes doesn't break up the action with a vivid cliffhanger, one of the main characters is dealt a massive blow in a truly horrifying epilogue that shows just how evil one of the villains can be. What's even worse (or better, you could say) is that I had really grown to love this character, which made the ending even more of a shock. It left me with a pit in my stomach, which to me demonstrates just how good the characterization was.
Keyes continues his deft touch with characterization. Princess Anne is probably the best, as she grows up a lot in the span of six months or so. I guess running for your life will do that to you, but most of the haughtiness has left her by the time she reaches her final scene. She's done the work of washerwomen, been threatened with a marriage fostered in darkness, and realized that the love of her life isn't quite as pure as she had always believed. All of her arrogance has been blunted by the news of the deaths in her family as well as the mystical fate that seems to be in store for her.
Even better is Leoff, the composer who is on a journey to take a royal commission in the capital, not realizing what he's getting into. He's the true innocent, doing what he believes is right no matter the consequences. The music in his heart and all around him captivates him, and the chance to write a piece of music that is unlike all others, despite what the church might say, draws him like a moth to a flame. His relationship with young Mery, whom he finds hiding in his room, is wonderfully charming and innocent as he takes the young girl under his wing and teaches her music. It's interesting to watch him deal with the political maneuvering going on around him because he is such a non-political creature. While he agrees to help Queen Muriele by composing a piece that will be unmatched, we get the feeling that he's doing it more to compose a piece like that than because he truly wants to help her. He is a good man, however, trapped in a world that could chew him up too easily if he missteps.
There are too many other characters to name them one by one, but they are all well-drawn, with the small exception of Robert. He comes off flat in this one, possibly because of his circumstances. Thankfully, those circumstances do ultimately become interesting as we find out why he's around and what those circumstances are, as well as what they mean for the rest of the world. He is still, however, rather dull by himself. That he is the only one is a marvel, though, considering how many characters populate this book. Even the bit parts are well-rounded, given enough depth to be interesting even without delving too deeply into their background.
Everything else about the book is great, as with the first book. The prose, the world-building, everything. Keyes has created living, breathing societies that are interrelated yet distinct. The religion is especially interesting. One can mildly criticize him for making yet another series where the church is on the side of the bad guys, but there are enough holy loners to make it clear it's not the religion itself at the center of the evil. It's just the men who have climbed to the height letting the power get to them.
The only bad thing about the book is the massive coincidence that brings together three of the disparate plotlines to the same place at the exact same time at the end of the book. Two of the three can be explained, as one of the characters is desperately tracking another before it's too late. However, the third one just stretched my allowances a little too far. It wasn't enough to completely destroy the book, but it might have if the rest of the book had been found wanting. Thankfully, the book itself holds your attention and won't let it go, so it's easy to allow this coincidence, notice it briefly, and then discard your annoyance because everything else is so good.
The Charnel Prince is a captivating read that grabs you, forces you through the ringer along with its characters, and then dumps you just when you want the book to go even further. I will be anxiously awaiting the third volume. Greg Keyes should be very proud of himself.