Monday, October 06, 2008

"The Riven Kingdom", by Karen Miller (Orbit Books)

One woman's fight to claim her crown, in a country torn apart by civil war

The Riven Kingdom is the eagerly anticipated second book in bestselling author Karen Miller’s Godspeaker Trilogy. Book One, Empress, follows Hekat as she transforms herself from nameless slave into Empress of the kingdom of Mijak, and concludes with her determination to win not only Mijak but the rest of the world for her god.

The Riven Kingdom focuses on a different, broad cast of characters whose lives are nevertheless inextricably linked with those of Hekat and her two sons, Zandakar and Dmitrak, and their quest for world domination. Princess Rhian’s father, the King of Ethrea is dying, and will leave her as his only heir. Prolate Marlan and many of the other lords are opposed to a Queen as sole ruler, and Rhian must defeat all attempts to deny her the crown. Her unlikely allies are Dexterity Jones, a toymaker, who is guided by the spirit of his dead wife; Ursa, the acerbic healer; and Zandakar, a mysterious exile from Mijak.

Almost 700 pages, Miller manages to sustain the pace and an intricate plot, interspersed with reminders of the importance of Ethrea to Hekat’s plans. Rhian is a more immediately appealing character than Hekat, and the relationship between Dexterity and Ursa is touching and sharply observed. The reader is drawn into Rhian’s battle to assert her identity as Princess and then Queen, and Dexterity’s struggle to understand Zandakar. Marlan, cruel and unpredictable, in certain scenes is truly chilling. Miller’s characters are all conflicted to some extent: one of her great strengths is her ability to illustrate the capacity for good and evil in each human. Certainly no character in The Riven Kingdom gives the impression that they exist simply as a plot device: even fairly minor characters often turn out to have an important part to play, and a complexity that goes beyond their space on the page.

Miller is perhaps best known for her book The Innocent Mage, and certainly the Godspeaker trilogy does bear comparison with fellow Australian Trudi Canavan’s Age of the Five trilogy. The Riven Kingdom is a less uncomfortable read than Empress, largely because of the differences in personality between the two main protagonists. Hekat is so consumed by her desire to please the god and her rise to power that she frequently seems inhuman. As so much of Empress is spent inside Hekat’s head, the reader is left feeling unclean and unsettled by her careless disregard for others. Miller also spends a lot of time building the world of Mijak, which is very firmly an alternate universe. The constant reference to “godspeakers”, “godbells” and various other customs and rituals became wearing and could perhaps have been edited down. The Riven Kingdom, on the other hand, is an easier read partly because it doesn’t feel like hard work: Miller has clearly put a lot of effort into fleshing out Hekat’s world. Now that she has laid the groundwork, this second volume feels less strained in contrast.

If you can get past the slightly laboured world of Empress, with its difficult if darkly attractive heronie, then The Riven Kingdom is a gripping instalment in an intriguing series. The ending left me impatient for book three, Hammer of God (published January 2009).

A definite improvement on volume one.

Review by Emma Newrick

Also try: Trudi Canavan's The Black Magician & Age of the Five trilogies; Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy.

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