I was excited to hear about Liane Merciel’s The River Kings’ Road because it has been a while since I’ve seen any debut epic fantasies by women.
The River Kings’ Road centers around a handful of characters. Brys is a mercenary, mostly motivated by his own self-interest, but who does rescue the infant son of his lord from a horrific attack during which an entire town is stripped of its blood. He manages to get away just before the spell goes off, but the infant has little chance of survival without its mother. But then, fate puts Odosse in his path, an unwed mother who gladly accepts the task of wetnursing young Wistan, even though he is the child of her enemy.
Shortly afterward, the Blessed Knight Kelland is recruited by the local lord to investigate what happened in the town. You can think of Kelland as a sort of paladin. He is famous in the area, known as the Burnt Knight because of his black skin. His friend and companion is Bitharn, a young female archer who is in love with him. This complicates things because Kelland is sworn to chastity — and his chastity is tied to his power.
And then we have Leferic, the conflicted young uncle to the poor Wistan. Leferic is a morally gray character. In fact, all the characters are gray to some extent — except maybe Kelland — but Leferic is the grayest of them all. His only friend in the world is Albric, who was his tutor and mentor, and who would do anything for him. Anything.
The point-of-view characters are everyone except Kelland and the main villain, the Maimed Witch. One of the problems I had with this novel is the choice of POV often prevented me from getting as emotionally into the plot as I would have liked. For example, we can only see Kelland’s struggles to remain morally pure through Bitharn’s eyes. Brys is so morally ambiguous that his actions often made me wince. I did like him, anyway. We only get in his head a little bit, where we learn about a very interesting woman who does not make an appearance in this novel. Many pages in the opening chapters are given to Leferic, but I didn’t think that every scene was necessary and I kept wanting to move on to the other characters. Odosse is very likable, but she comes across as simpleminded at first. And because we are never behind Kelland’s eyeballs, we must witness the final battle through another character’s eyes.
The strengths in this novel are the difficult choices that all of the characters face. Brys struggles with his own self-interest vs. a sense of honor that he seems to want to stifle. Leferic struggles with the consequences of his actions. Albric struggles between his sense of honor and his sense of love and duty toward Leferic. Bitharn struggles with her desires. And Odosse has more than one heart-rending decision to make. Kelland was the most fascinating character. He’s a man out of place for two reasons, his race and his Blessed status. I did wish we could have spent some time in his point-of-view.
The Maimed Witch is probably one of the most evil, well-conceived and horrific villains I’ve ever come across. One both pities her and is horrified by her. And she ends up having an unexpected and intriguing (if indirect) connection to one of the other characters.
It might be easy to pigeonhole these characters into typical fantasy tropes, except they don’t fit there comfortably. Leferic isn’t your typical evil and ambitious young lord. He seems capable of redemption. There’s no trope that you could ever place Odosse in. Bitharn does seem similar to characters like Valaria from the Conan the Barbarian movie, but without the kick-assitude. Kelland can be seen as a sort of Galahad, but not really. Galahad was never tempted. Maybe he’s more like Lancelot. But not really. Brys might be seen as a warrior with a heart of gold, but I’m not sure if he has a heart of gold. And the maimed witch? Dang. I can’t pigeonhole her anywhere.
The ending took the novel in a direction I didn’t expect at all. It did make sense, but the direction of upcoming novels might swerve away from certain characters. Odosse, for example, seems quite fixed by the end of the novel, and it’s hard to see her having a large part in the next novel. Bitharn, certainly will take center stage and possibly Brys as well. I don’t get any sense of how many books are planned in this series; it’s simply called A Novel of Ithelas.
Ultimately, I would have liked to have felt a better sense of connection to the characters. I would like to have seen more pages devoted to Kelland and Bitharn, and fewer devoted to Leferic and Albric. I’m not a big fan of the George R. R. Martin style of multiple viewpoints, and the only novel I’ve really loved that has employed this technique is David Anthony Durham’s Acacia series. The shorter length of this novel (348 pages) doesn’t seem to support the multi-viewpoint technique. Yes, I’m complaining that the novel was not long enough. Give me at equivalent time between all the characters if they are all going to have equal weight.
My problem with this novel was probably me. Given the choice between a character development epic and a multi-viewpoint epic, I’ll take the character development epic every time. If you enjoy the multi-POV storytelling style, then there is much to enjoy in The River King’s Road.