Greg Keyes' "The Briar King" is a mix of good fantasy and thorny mess. While the worldbuilding and background for the first book of his new series is outstanding, his writing doesn't live up to his imagination. It's a flawed but deeply interesting book overall.
The Briar King is a remnant of the old pagan beliefs, living on only in little superstitions and children's songs. But after the old holter Aspar rescues a nerdy young priest, they learn of strange things that are stirring in the woods, and human beings are dropping dead or being sacrificed -- and Aspar encounters a greffyn, a mythical monster whose touch and breath can kill. They're all signs that the Briar King is waking.
But the Briar King isn't the only source of trouble: the royal Dare family is being quietly turned on its head. Someone is trying to kill the queen, Princess Lesbeth has vanished mysteriously, and idealistic young knight Neil has fallen in love with Princess Fastia (who is married). Worst of all, one of the royals has gone mad, and threatens to destroy his entire family. The only one who may escape is immature Anne, who has been having strange visions.
It's virtually impossible to write semi-original fantasies now, but Keyes dodges the typical cliches -- elves, wizards, Dark Lords and demons. The story is engaging and unusual, but it starts stumbling partway through. But it demonstrates that Keyes has a good story worth telling; it ends on a "to be continued" note, of course.
Keyes starts off strong with mysterious occurrances and plenty of creepiness. He puts a lot of effort and description into his worldbuilding, such as the Dare family, the pseudo-Christian religion and well-crafted myths. But about halfway through "Briar King," Keyes starts to lose control of the story. There are too many subplots that only seem to be marginally tied together (what is up with that love potion subplot?), and it loses the creepy quality.
Keyes' writing is pedestrian most of the time, although it blossoms whenever something really freaky is happening. The description of Aspar encountering the Briar King is brief, but strikingly ominous. And once you get past the typical lead characters (spirited princess, priest with a lot to learn, cocky swordsman), there are plenty of unique supporting roles (like the dead old woman in the caves).
"The Briar King" is an unsteady but promising start to Greg Keyes new series. It dodges most cliches and sticks to an unusual storyline, but the execution needs some work before the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series can be counted as a good fantasy.