Books

Karen Miller
The Falcon Throne

The plot of this long novel, which covers many years, is incited by a coup by which a bastard named Roric claims the Falcon Throne, and thereby becomes the duke of Clemen. “First Harald, who cared so little… and now Roric, who cared too much,” muses one character: each style of rule has its perils. Meanwhile, a villain kills what he believes to be the deposed duke’s baby, while the real one is secreted away to the Marches, a “maggotry of bandits” with a weaker rule of law. Marriages are brokered; marriages are stymied; dwarfs “water-joust”; storms beset determined riders who push onwards, undeterred. Creatively named plagues sweep through the kingdom.

In dramatic fantasy, the joy in watching players vie for seats of power is in the complexity, and the sneakiness, of their schemes. Here, dialogue tends not to have very much behind it; most characters seem to say exactly what they mean. (“Soon, Lindara. We’ll have everything we want soon.” “Why must it be soon? Why isn’t it now?” “Because of politics.”) A notable exception is Molly, the proprietor of an inn that presides over a busy, lawless crossroads. She at first seems overdone – “The pity is these lords can’t keep their feggit daggers sheathed,” she tsks – but turns out to be alternately sympathetic and shocking.

The story’s scale is impressive – but so is its tidiness. Every nice, leisurely chapter flows smoothly into the next. Sentence by sentence, it’s much less strong. Hair is flaxen; hair is chestnut; chambers are lushly appointed. Rage causes wine to turn to vinegar in the mouth; quickly, that same wine looks ominously like blood. Then again, it is when the book relaxes and revels in the ridiculousness that it gets truly fun. It’s gleefully filthy (“But he was helpless beneath her, a ruthless man being ruthlessly fucked.”). The body count piles up and there are several gasp-out-loud twisty moments. Best of all, there’s a shadowy figure who communicates with select witchy characters through animating the severed heads of dead babies. Newborns preferred. 

Great fantasy is hard to come by. The Falcon Throne is good. It’s the first book in a series called Tarnished Crown, and should perhaps be judged as the (688-page) introduction to an unfinished work. Karen Miller is seasoned, with multiple series under her belt; here, the plot picks up in the back half, taking more risks, and tightening up – a good omen for readers looking to make a long-term investment.  CR

Orbit, 688pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "Karen Miller, The Falcon Throne". Subscribe here.

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