Breakneck neck-breaking fun
It’s easy to mock high fantasy as a morass of improbable names, squiggly-line maps and reactionary cod-medieval world-building, strung out over endless volumes that gradually sink under the weight of their own obsessive detail. It’s easy to forget – perhaps because it’s become a bit scarce these days – what got many of us into reading fantasy in the first place: page-turning, plot-twisting, breakneck adventure.
The first in a new trilogy – stay with us! – The King’s Bastard scratches this itch with some panache. Rowena Cory Daniells has a splendidly devious way with plotting. She exploits her characters’ secrets, ignorance and prejudices to great effect as she charts the gradual breakdown of personal and political relations at the heart of a snow-bound kingdom. Mistakes are made, vital information is not passed on, and simple disagreements blow up into violence – not because the story demands it, but because characters are hemmed in by past choices and present circumstances. A lie told on impulse, to protect a friend, hangs over king’s son Byren for the whole book in all sorts of ways: fuelling an enemy’s schemes, threatening a rift with his father, and royally pissing off his would-be girlfriend, to boot.
The prose lacks flair, but this proves to be a strength; aside from the odd nonsensicality (like one character noticing that another “stiffened imperceptibly”), the language’s transparency stops it interfering with the flow of the action. And what action! This is a book full of incident, intrigue, and magical beasties with large teeth and an appetite for our heroes. Half a star deducted, though, for its resort to the tired old trope of a female character suffering sexual violence largely to give her menfolk something more to angst about.