The High King’s Tomb by Kristen Britain (2007)

May 22, 2011 at 9:39 am (fantasy)

I feel like I need to point out up front that this is actually a positive review of this book and series.  It’s just that there are some relatively minor things that bug me.

So, my local public library finally picked up the paperback of this third-of-four volumes and put it on the “NEW” shelf.  Well, at least that means I found it.

I’ve been patiently following this series since Green Rider was published way back in (checks author’s website) 1998.  Patience has been required, because the sequel First Rider’s Call did not appear until 2003, this third volume came out (in hardcover) in 2007, and the fourth volume, Blackveil, was issued in hardcover and ebook formats in February of 2011.

Am I going to say it’s been worth the wait for this third volume?  Yes.  Am I in raptures over the series?  Not quite.  It’s good, solid high fantasy, with good, solid writing (language, characterization, plotting, the works).  There are good, creative ideas in it, and some derivative ones.   I’m not, I have to admit, completely convinced that the basic story really needed four volumes to tell, but that’s more in the nature of a quibble (and one that I’ve felt more strongly about with regard to some other series).

About the story:  The country of Sacoridia has spent centuries recovering from a devastating war.   In that time, the use of magic has been abandoned by everyone except the elite corps of “Green Riders,” the monarch’s messenger service (their uniforms are green), and even they don’t “use” magic as such; they think they have “talents” granted by the magical brooches they wear.  Oh, and they’re “called” by magic.

Sound vaguely familiar yet?  They also have unusually intelligent horses; the secret of these is finally revealed in High King’s Tomb, and I have to admit it wasn’t anything I was expecting.  That’s the way the whole series has been for me: various vaguely familiar elements that usually turn out to be new models.  I know it’s asking a lot to suggest that any high fantasy be composed of all new ideas, but there’s enough of this in the series that it keeps me from enjoying it without reservation.

At any rate, despite its rejection of magic in a world where it actually does work, Sacoridia has not been ravaged by foreign magic-users … because the remnants of the Arcosian invaders who might be using it were locked in the Blackveil Forest behind a physical/magical wall (called the D’Yer Wall).  Garth Nix’s Sabriel, whose Old Kingdom is hemmed in by a magical wall, was published in 1995.  These two walls are in no way identical, except for being walls that keep evil at bay.  (I’m not clear, in either case, on why the evil doesn’t just go around, but oceans may have something to do with it.)

So.  Our main protagonist is Karigan, a merchant’s daughter who is drafted into the Green Riders.  By Volume 3, she’s settled into the life (which is not at all what she had in mind), helped to prevent the overthrow of the rightful monarch by his brother (and fallen in love with him), and managed to keep a breach in the D’Yer Wall from leading to the total destruction of Sacoridia.  Alton Deyer, descendant of the D’Yers who have forgotten their ancient magical building skills, is trying to figure out how to repair the breach and, as the book goes on, how to keep the wall from failing entirely.  Also, the book tracks the activities of the survivors of Sacoridia’s fifth column, descendants of the Arcosians who call themselves Second Empire and expect to take over Sacoridia any day now.  Their leader has magic – and she, by the way, seems to be a completely original (and chilling) character.

So, seriously, the historical background mostly makes sense, especially with the various reveals that finally turn up in this volume.  The plot actually zooms right along, making these elements I’m complaining about recede into the background most of the time (though the way horsemaster Damian Frost and his wife Lady reminded me of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry was a bit painful).  Did I mention the Eletians?  Tolkienish elves, with variations.  They and some of the other characters can traverse another dimension, which looks like an endless plain, which I think I recall from the early volumes of the Wheel of Time series (I only read the first two or three).

I think, as with the Wheel of Time series, that it’s not the presence of these familiar elements that bugs me; it’s the number of them (there are a few others that I haven’t mentioned).  I bet if the series were shorter, there would be fewer and I’d notice them less.  And I do have to say, the burial customs of the Sacoridian kings were a most unexpected and interesting touch.  I’m not sure they make sense in the larger cultural context, but they’re definitely different – and the tombs are the setting of the book’s climax, which features a revelation that I was definitely not expecting.

So, the story is sweeping, political, magical, sometimes military, and in this volume it’s clear that at least one god is getting involved.  There are vanishingly few instances of characters being stupid for the sake of the plot; in a couple of cases there are characters being more intelligent than I expected, which is a very nice thing.  There is only one thing that actually bugs me enough to nearly make me put the books down: Karigan’s main character quirk seems to be getting into embarrassing – even humiliating – minor scrapes.  In this volume, for example, she’s talked into going out with a young merchant’s son and winds up trying to fight in a fancy, restricting dress (humiliating) and later gets knocked off her horse by a porch roof (don’t ask).  I can easily see Karigan being played by Anne Hathaway in the movie.  But it undercuts her overall competence and, frankly, I personally hate embarrassment and hate seeing it repeatedly in a book (or a movie, for that matter).

Still.  The books are enjoyable reads, despite these things that bug me, and I hope my library gets the fourth volume soon, so I can read it.


1 Comment

  1. Paul (@princejvstin) said,

    Thanks, Kris. My friend Felicia likes Britain and this series. I do see that some things bug you strongly, even if you do seem to like the series as a whole.

    Some of the world does sound derivative, but different enough that you were able to go with it.

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