My reading habits have drastically changed over the last few years. If I look at myself based only on my reading (and who doesn’t do that?), then I can barely recognise myself compared to the reader I was five years ago. If this reading meme has made me think about anything, it’s about my history with books and reading and styles, and how many different readers I have been in my life.
This is me now: I read YA books by the bucketload, mostly those that have come out this year. The same goes for SF and fantasy, mostly books by women, mostly standalones or urban fantasy in which every volume is short and sharp and self-contained. When it comes to the genre known as BFF (Big Fat Fantasy, referred to as such lovingly by fans and unlovingly by non-readers) I will defend it to the utmost and refer nostalgically to the books I consumed as a Reader Past, but in fact I don’t read much of it.
Or indeed, any. I don’t think I’ve cracked the spine of a BFF volume since the last time I judged the fantasy section for the AAs. I will wax enthusastic about current female fantasy writers such as Karen Miller, Jennifer Fallon and Glenda Larke, but the truth is that all of these writers have produced at least one if not several new series since I last read them. (I think Karen has put out about ten) I started keeping up with other aspects of the genre, and let this one slide. When I was remembering how much I love court fantasy with its intrigue and politics, I realised that I read all the books I love most from that genre some time ago. Because, you know, the books are long and they travel in packs.
Reading The King’s Bastard by Rowena Cory Daniells, who is a good friend of mine (which is why this isn’t really a REAL review though of course once I stop talking about myself it pretty much will be), I basically had to retrain myself how to read this kind of book. That makes it sound like homework or a chore, which it most definitely was not. But the first few times I opened it, I read too fast and missed everything that was happening, or read too slow and got distracted. I put it down, picked it up, put it down again.
I had forgotten how to read Big Fat Fantasy. My attention span since I had my second (and let’s face it, my first) baby has become almost non-existent, which is why the biting speed and efficiency of YA works so well for me. I don’t have time to stop and watch the scenery, I have to EAT BOOK NOW.
Last weekend, I finally caved and did what I was supposed to do. I got comfy on the couch, and actually immersed myself in the experience of reading The King’s Bastard. I learned its rhythms and cadences, and before I knew it, I was hooked. Having allowed myself to sink utterly into the world of the book, the pages flew by impossibly fast. I had forgotten the secret of reading Big Fat Fantasy – which is that it doesn’t actually take much longer to read than the shorter, snappier books I have grown accustomed to. It takes longer to begin to reading, to find the immersion point, and it’s harder to stop and start in the ten minute intervals I normally have for reading. But once you are immersed, it is the best kind of escapist reading, not least because it becomes so familiar to you that the story unfolds with ease. There’s also the pleasure of a fully realised imaginary culture, instead of the swiftly-conveyed worldbuilding shorthand of a YA or urban fantasy.
But enough about how fantasy works – which would be of no surprise to those of you who do still read it regularly, so I apologise for spending so much time to state the obvious! I’ve been waiting for quite a few years for a new series from Rowena, and this one does not disappoint. To hear her describe it, I was expecting something quite traditional. Indeed on the surface it is a story about medieval-style kings and princes, a tomboy princess, and a kingdom on the brink of war. But being Rowena, she couldn’t possibly tell a story that conventional. Within the first couple of chapters, her hero has found out his (male) best friend is in love with him and been thrown off the estate of the girl he loves on suspicion of being a) gay and b) a traitor to his father’s throne. He then spends almost the entire book desperately trying not to accidentally be more popular or successful than his twin brother, who is the heir to the kingdom, and attempting to be as loyal and obedient as he can despite the fact that half his family appear to have gone off their rocker.
The vivid landscape came across beautifully in this book, shown in the way that all the characters interact with it. I loved the wintry snow-based scenery and the way so many of them travel and hunt by ice-skates. The theme of wild magic affecting the land was shown through the variety of dangerous magical creatures that our characters had to deal with, and the way that this feature of the land is incorporated into the traditions and heraldry of the various houses. Those people who display magical ability (“Affinity”) are sent to an abbey full of power-mad monks and nuns, which gave even more scope for the kind of court politics intrigue that I love best in my fantasy fiction. And of course, anyone who doesn’t admit they have Affinity is marked a traitor… which is embarrassing if you happen to be one of the King’s own family.
There’s an edge of high school bitchiness to the court politics of the book – a bastard cousin comes to town and begins to show an unsettling influence over both the king and his heir, deliberately and quite unsubtly causing trouble between them and other members of the family, particularly our second son hero Byren and the queen herself. While Illien’s behaviour was quite blatant, I have to admit that the techniques he was using are insidiously effective in a high school setting, so why not in a king’s palace as well? The rift that develops between the twin brothers is quite emotionally wrenching, and it made me want to bash their heads together and draw a diagram of what exactly the villain was doing to them both. Sigh. Boys.
My favourite character in this was Piro, the reluctant princess – again, a quite traditional fantasy trope, but manipulated by Rowena’s twistily evil brain to defy expectations. While the men are rushing around with their grander adventures of honour, betrayal and warfare, Piro has a different rite of passage to go through: diplomacy, betrothal and grace under pressure, none of which turn out to be her forte. We follow an awkward, brave and noisy girl whose attempts to please her parents and play the elegant princess are doomed to failure because ultimately she’s just not as good at artifice as her mother is – and indeed, discovering the uncomfortable truths behind her parents’ marriage was one of her most interesting through-threads. I was as delighted as Piro herself when she finally got a chance to slip her confining bounds and go on a real adventure where her actual talents could be used.
What surprised me most, apart from the fact that I got through 600 pages of this book in a weekend (and I do NOT have much spare reading time, especially on a weekend, so I have no idea how this happened) was that many of the plotlines/character arcs I was expecting to build up towards a resolution in the third book pretty much came to a crashing, explosive climax at the end of this one. The rug has been well and truly yanked out from under me, I have no idea what is going to happen next – except that obviously I’m going to have to put another couple of weekends aside over August and September for Books 2 and 3, which are being released monthly by Solaris.
In short (ha!) The King’s Bastard is a compulsively readable, sneakily subversive traditional court fantasy, with manticores and ice-skating. It is published by Solaris and there isn’t currently an Australian edition, though I have it on good authority that Galaxy Bookshop has it in. I’m sure other specialty stores do too.
Now that my BFF reading teeth are all honed sharp and everything, it might be finally time to catch up on that backlog of Karen Millers and Glenda Larkes…