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The River Kings' Road: A Novel of Ithelas

by Liane Merciel

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Ithelas (book 1)

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1518153,172 (3.32)12
A fragile period of peace between the eternally warring kingdoms of Oakharn and Langmyr is shattered when a surprise massacre fueled by bloodmagic ravages the Langmyrne border village of Willowfield, killing its inhabitants. But the dead lord's infant heir has survived the carnage. While his life hangs in the balance so too does the fate of thousands while a Maimed Witch practices an evil bloodmagic that could doom them all.… (more)
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» See also 12 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
This is exactly the kind of fantasy I love: a potentially epic setting but with "low fantasy" focus on the actual people within it. Peasants have the chance to determine fate for a change. Like Saladin Ahmed, I also want "fewer kings and starship captains, more coach drivers and space waitresses" in my spec fic.

Beyond class diversity, the spec fic genre also needs progress in racial diversity. It's something I try to do in my own writing and also something I consciously keep an eye out for in my reading. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the paladin in The River Kings' Road, Sir Kelland, is from the African-analogue of this fictional universe. Although an orphan raised by Sun Knights, he connects with his heritage by braiding his hair in the fashion of its warriors, and the common folk view his dark skin as a manifestation of the Sun Goddess' favor, making him the "Burnt Knight." He's also the subject of a wants-to-be-but-bound-to-celibacy romantic subplot with his assistant, a woman warrior, and I was happy to see that these two will have a bigger part in the sequel.

I hasten to add that the story itself is less of an essay on class and racial diversity than the paragraphs I've written here--I was just impressed at how, while not groundbreaking, this story is able to quietly model that sort of diversity with a cast of well-rounded characters, albeit in a fairly standard fantasy setting.

Although there are some unique and flavorful additions--the sadomasochistic Thorn witches (and that's sadomasochism in the not fun, safe, sane, and consensual manner), Sir Kelland and his background, and even the River Kings' gleaming Road itself--ultimately the setting is a medieval world, complete with analogues to the Vikings. One nice thing is that it's a medieval world written by an author who clearly did historical research: there's a throwaway line about a family losing its milk cow when their house is burned down, because during winter they keep the livestock indoors with them. Again, there's these down-to-earth details of daily lives and what it's like to be an average person in this world. I hasten to add that these are throwaway lines; the main plot isn't bogged down by trivia.

Which isn't exactly to say doesn't get bogged down.

The plot starts with a bang--technically, with fire and Bloodmist, which is exactly what it sounds like--and the story moves forward steadily, without any wasted scenes. Yet, in the middle particularly, there are a lot of flashbacks to provide background information that rarely rises above standard fantasy fare. Wars, evil wizards, hard-bitten mercenaries, strange curses, and those Viking analogues I mention call the undead they fight Skraelings, which is an actual Viking term (meaning "wretch," and applied by them to Native Americans. Specifically the Native Americans who drove them out of Newfoundland. I highly doubt Merciel intends anything racially loaded by the term; that's just interesting trivia I want to bog my review down with).

In contrast to my parenthetical comment above, the characters' flashbacks are generally germane, and frequently help to develop the backstory and personality of individuals. Sometimes I wonder whether the background information could be more gracefully presented, but on the whole it is a fast-paced story as the worldbuilding gets fleshed out. All the same, aspects of the world still feel a bit thrown together--the Thorn Witches, despite some genuinely creepy body modifications, are in many ways a generic evil sorcerers empire to the east with exotic naming conventions, while the Western European main setting has a mixture of names that feel English and French--which makes parts of it feel more constructed than inhabited. Ang'arta especially--I do not know how that country works, and it does not feel like a real place. To be fair, none of the characters have actually been there yet, mostly because in true evil empire fashion it's a place few people go to and survive.

Even if the evil empire which never appears onscreen could be better realized (and when you put it like that, it's obvious), the villainous characters themselves are as well-rounded as the good guys. There does seem to be more character development on their part, with redemptive arcs or at least tragic ones. In fact, I wound up feeling more sympathy for the most decent of the villains than the most antiheroic of the heroes--and I think that's a feature, not a bug. There are enough genuinely kind people for me to care about and root for, like the peasant mother Odosse and Sir Kelland, who are respectively trying to survive and keep two babes in arms alive while fleeing a Thorn Witch through border territory that might at any moment erupt into war, and launching an investigation into a massacre that might wind up triggering said war. Unlike the typical epic fantasy where we're supposed to be cheered at the prospect of a nice war to get the heart pounding and the lungs inflated, here war is shown as terrible as it generally is when you're, say, one of the people who might drop dead when the Bloodmist is unleashed.

Of a fairly large cast, one of the least interesting characters happens to be the one we start off with--Brys Tarnell, the brilliantly green-eyed swordsman featured on the cover, and pretty much a standard antihero. I actually expected more character development from him than I got. He's a perfectly well-rounded standard antihero, with the street smarts to get Odosse and two babies across enemy territory and the occasional sarcastic barb, but he hasn't hit the full swing of his redemptive arc yet (some might find this refreshing). Odosse, though, is instantly sympathetic without being nothing but a victim, despite being a peasant, a young unmarried mother, and unattractive in more than the "Hollywood Homely" sense. She has to make her own choices in this novel, some of them surprising.

The Thorn Witch and her magic, which relies largely on mutilation, is genuinely terrifying, and while I wish we learned more about her motives, it looks like those will come up in the sequel. All of the backstory dropping and the slow character arcs appear to be in preparation for a much larger story arc--and this book is clearly the first in the series, with much tantalizingly unresolved at the end. I've already ordered the next, Heaven's Needle.

This review is cross-posted from Story Addict. ( )
1 vote T.Arkenberg | Sep 26, 2013 |
good start, wait for sequel
  lindap69 | Apr 5, 2013 |
Summary: Tensions between the neighboring kingdoms of Oakharn and Langmyr have been high for as long as anyone can remember. After a terrible attack on a Langmyr village, in which an Oakharne prince was visiting, the only survivors are Brys Tarnell, a mercenary man-at-arms, and the infant son of the prince. The attack was committed using bloodmagic, the specialty of the Ang'artan Maimed Witches, a group of terrifyingly dangerous sorcerers. Brys plans to take the baby to Oakharn, and he soon encounters a homely young woman with a son of her own to help him care for the infant, but the witch does not like leaving a job unfinished. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of the attack are being hunted by the religious knight Kellan, who may be the only man alive who has a chance of killing of killing the evil sorceress.

Review: This book has a lot going for it - a compelling story, some interesting bits of worldbuilding, and an effectively terrifying bad guy - but it faltered by trying to do too much, too fast. By epic fantasy standards, it's not a particularly long book, and its 400-odd pages are split amongst four storylines and five points of view. Multiple POV characters is something that can be used to move a story along (see: George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series), but in the case of The River Kings' Road, Merciel hasn't yet obtained nearly that level of mastery. Instead, too long is spent on each segment, leaving a hundred pages between successive installments from each character, and effectively keeping me from being too involved in any one story, or from ever becoming particularly attached to any one character.

Merciel also doesn't quite have the grip on her worldbuilding that I would have liked. The raw materials are there, for sure, but there's so much going on in her story that all of the details of the worldbuilding don't always get worked into an organic whole. As a result, there are a number of elements (including the road of the title; a relic of an ancient civilization) that seem to be there only because they sounded good. Perhaps these elements will get picked up and explained in the sequel which the ending is so obviously setting up.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read; Merciel's prose is smooth and her story has a lot of potential to become very interesting. I just think this book was overambitious - too many characters, worldbuilding too complex, etc. - for what it was able to achieve. I'll be reading the sequel, in hopes that as Merciel matures as an author that she manages to take the reins on this sprawling story. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I enjoy epic fantasy, and am always interested to see a fresh take on it, particularly if it's not a pigboy parable, and particularly if it's written by a woman. The River Kings' Road is not the most astounding debut I've ever come across, but it definitely shows promise, and is therefore probably worth checking out for other fans of epic fantasy. ( )
  fyrefly98 | May 28, 2011 |
Fantasy fans that like their stories in medieval settings are likely to enjoy this debut novel by author Liane Merciel.

They'll have to be patient first though, because in the first half of the book things move slowly as Merciel introduces places and characters (lots and lots of characters -- enough that my head was swimming). In the last 1/2 of the book though, the story takes off and ends in as satisfying a fashion as the first book in a series can end.

As far as the narrative goes, it doesn't appear to be the tale of any one person -- at least not so far. The story is told from the perspective of pairs. There's a young unwed mother and a surly churl of a knight. A religious knight and his female childhood friend. AND the bad second son prince and his faithful follower.

Out of this group the best characterization has got to be that of the bad prince who has his brother and his brother's family murdered. Merciel does a marvelous job of making his actions understandable and almost reasonable. The rest of the characters, though well drawn, aren't nearly as innovative and might possibly even sound familiar. But for the first book in a series -- which I generally never like -- it shows true potential.

TALKING POINTS:::
Medieval, knightly setting with magical/religious elements.

Slow to begin as world structure is built up.

If you like to follow only one character, leave this one alone. I follows several groups.

Some violence, but nothing stomach heaving. No bad language that I can recall. Some mild 'adult' situations; one character is an unwed mother afterall.

Two occurrences where I was incredulous which I found distracting-- but hey, that could just be me; I'm pretty scrutinizing.

Suitable for YA (young adults) although that's not the target market.

Pam T~
(booksforkids-reviews) ( )
  PamFamilyLibrary | Apr 29, 2010 |
An impious mercenary witnesses, and avoids an attack in a bordertown between two fractious medieval fantasy kingdoms, Langmyr, the site of the attack, and their implacable enemy, Oakharn. Also surviving the attack are a young woman, and the heir to the Oakharn lord killed in the massacre.

This sets the stage for a complex web of alliances, struggles and strivings, as forces not only on both sides move to investigate and take advantage of the attack, but powers from beyond Oakharn and Langmyr as well. Godtouched champions of good and light maneuver against each other, and those caught in the middle simply try to survive, and wait to see if this massacre will lead to yet another conflict on already blood-soaked ground.

Such is the fodder for River Kings' Road, a fantasy novel debut by Liane Merciel. The broad lines of the world and conflict she creates is nothing new for experienced fantasy readers. Medieval fantasy, magic based on devotion to one of a pantheon of deities, the basic trappings of a typical fantasy world. Digging a little deeper, the novel features a variety of multidimensional characters on a decidedly complex chessboard of groups seeking to quell or enflame, the fires of war and conflict between the two kingdoms. Merciel does a good job at the shades of gray between the the two characters who really are black and white. She also has clearly read and grokked the Anderson essay "On Thud and Blunder". She gets underpinnings right that many authors completely and utterly forget. Horses in her universe, for example, are *not* treated as motorcycles. The medieval feel of the world is pervasive and palpable. Faith has a role in this world that feels authentic and nuanced rather than "Crystal Dragon Jesus" .

My only major complaint is that it is not extremely original. I've read much fantasy like this before, of varying qualities, degrees and shadings. Its familiar territory. Kingdoms with ambitious vassals, sorceresses, paladins, and so forth.

Oh, and the novel really could have used a map and a glossary or concordance. While these two features in a fantasy novel are practically cliche by this point, when you have a novel geography and world, it is often useful for really getting a handle on who is where, where they are going, and how people are related to each other.

It's a decent debut, even if not groundshattering. Merciel has ideas here that I would like to have explored further, and I hope her novel does well enough that readers such as myself will have the opportunity to discover them. ( )
1 vote Jvstin | Apr 24, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Liane Mercielprimary authorall editionscalculated
Youll, StephenCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Ithelas (book 1)
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For Mom and Dad, who took me to the library week after week, year after year, and (almost) never complained about the late fees;

and Peter, who keeps me something close to sane.
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Brys Tarnell was not a pious man.
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A fragile period of peace between the eternally warring kingdoms of Oakharn and Langmyr is shattered when a surprise massacre fueled by bloodmagic ravages the Langmyrne border village of Willowfield, killing its inhabitants. But the dead lord's infant heir has survived the carnage. While his life hangs in the balance so too does the fate of thousands while a Maimed Witch practices an evil bloodmagic that could doom them all.

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