The King’s Bastard (King Rolen’s Kin #1), by Rowena Cory Daniells

Published in July 2010, the first instalment of The Chronicles of King Rolen’s King caught my eye thanks to the interesting blurb, and—if I’m honest—the dark style of art on the cover. Having read other novels supposedly rich in political intrigue and dangerous machinations that delivered as promised, yet lacked any characterisation whatsoever, I was expecting great things from this trilogy.

The first instalment of King Rolen’s Kin offers a deep insight into the royal family of Rolencia. Centred around the children of the present King Rolen—twins, Lence and Byren, the spare son, Fyn, and Rolen’s sole daughter, Piro—the novel sets the stage for what promises to be a ferociously witty, tense trilogy that will keep readers glued to the last word.

Introducing an interesting magic system, clever geographical divides and a devastating game of Kings, The King’s Bastard might not be what the author set out for (“a story people can enjoy on a Saturday afternoon after a long week”—RCD), but that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent read. In fact, it’s too quick-paced, sharp and jam-packed with betrayal, family feuds, and life-shattering secrets to be as the author describes it.

Rolencia is cold, even as the cusp of seasons approaches; snow and ice make the necessary culling of stray Affinity beasts difficult, political relations hinge on the marriage of Lence Kingsheir, and when a Warlord fails to renew his oath of loyalty to King Rolen, the world turns colder.

A game of Duelling Kingdoms is afoot, and not the tricky board-game played by Piro Kingsdaughter and her mother when the thirteen-year-old manages to push aside her approaching womanly duties as she matures. Piro longs for the adventure and freedom her brothers—even Fyn—receive, and would gladly swap her place at the palace for something more than the role she’ll eventually receive from her mother; a glorified housewife. But the secret Piro holds close to her heart might force her away from Rolenhold against her will: Piro holds Affinity and by Rolencia law (her father’s law) anyone touched by the Affinity of the Gods, gifted in the use of magic, must away to the abbeys. But perhaps Piro’s blossoming Affinity is the least of her worries…especially when her mother keeps whispering about her future and marriage.

Affinity must run in the family, then, Fyn Kingson decides. Essentially stripped of any real royal duty—save his name, which in turn creates more problems than if he were an ordinary monk at Halcyon Abbey—Fyn was shipped off to the abbey as a boy. With a kind heart and not a cruel streak about him, Fyn must find a way of becoming a Mystic, so that his Kingsheir brother, Lence, will not expect him to become the abbey’s Weaponsmaster and aid him in battle and war. At least as a Mystic he’ll still have some use to Lence, he hopes. The likelihood seems slim, however, when Fyn’s Affinity barely registered on the scale when first tested.

Bryen Kingson—seven minutes younger than the Kingsheir, Lence—knows little of Affinity, but when he happens upon a renegade Power-Worker (one touched with Affinity, but untrained at either of the abbeys) who delivers a deft prophecy, he cannot wash the old woman’s words away. Her insidious words claim the impossible, although try as he might, Byren is haunted by them. Unable to consider the old seer a fraud after she heals his lifelong friend from a fatal head wound, Byren would brush her vision away, had she not ventured to his mother—and unbeknownst to him, his brother Fyn, too—and spoke similarly penetrating words to the Queen of Rolencia.

With an increasing amount of Affinity seeps and Affinity beasts such as Manticores and Leogryfs prowling them, edging closer to the surrounding villages than comfort allows, danger leaves its mark in the Rolencian snows. Byren and his brother assist where they can, but with Byren outdoing Lence at every turn with seemingly no effort, should Byren really be surprised that his twin becomes locked in a tight friendship with their recently acknowledged bastard cousin, who does nothing but acknowledge his supremacy as Kingsheir? Desperate to disprove the old seer’s dying prophecy, Byren strives to bridge the sudden rift between them. With his own name hailed louder—“Byren Leogryfslayer!”—and those who would see him take his father’s throne, he has his work cut out—more so, given their cousin’s insidious tongue and sudden appearance in Rolencia.

Darker shadows stalk Fyn’s footsteps at the Abbey, with a game of power unfolding before his very eyes; a game in which he is the prized piece, despite his obliviousness to it thus far. Threats are issued, strong accusations seek to see him severely reprimanded, and vicious bullies move against him merely for being “Kingson”. Little does Fyn know, however dark his days at the Abbey may appear, that he should keep his friends close and his nerves steeled, for a deeper shadow is due to settle across his life at the Abbey, a shadow he knows he is barely equipped to fight.

Fresh in King Rolen’s mind is the betrayal of the Servants of Palos; lovers of men. Imagine Byren’s horror to find his friend to be one—a lover of men. With his friend disinherited by his father, and afraid of his own father’s reaction having been implicated as his friend’s lover somehow, Byren vows to protect his friend’s secret—but at what cost? The Kingson knows his father cannot separate “lover of men”, from “Servant of Palos”.

Whilst the inclusion of homosexuality is increasingly relevant, it seems in this instance to be only vaguely considered and barely thought-out. The relevancy of having been a Servant of Palos, and being homosexual is actually never discussed, and the reader is to simply accept that all followers of Palos were gay, and that all gay men are (considered) followers of this secret society steeped in betrayal. Of course, this is merely conveying the view of the culture, and can be accepted.

What further lets Daniells’ attempt at a very relevant theme down, is her characters’ reactions to it: whilst it is acceptable that Lence—the ‘headstrong’ twin—would be blinkered in his views, taking into account the character she has built for Byren, the younger twin would not be as judgemental in his views as he ends up being. Although Byren does accept that his friend is not a Servant of Palos, and merely prefers men, his behaviour swings from normal, to suspicious, to awkward. Acting as though he is in constant ‘danger’ from his friends’ (nonexistent) advances, whilst commenting in an offhand fashion that homosexuality amongst women is normal because “women are lovely”, degrades Byren’s whole intelligence and character. Byren is smarter than that, and he deserves to have been portrayed to the best of his wit and intelligence throughout.

Finally, the notion that homosexuality is wrong from a religious (or moral, or cultural) viewpoint—like Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun series—is a concept readers can grasp; it makes sense. To mark homosexuality (only for men) as wrongdoing, and linking it to a treacherous secret society in one country (it is not “illegal” in other countries in the novel) seems clumsy and pointless. Worse; it seems like an awkward plot device, as many occurrences revolve around Orrade’s homosexuality, and Byren’s desperation to conceal it, without incriminating himself.

At times during The King’s Bastard the plot speeds along so gracefully, so quickly that as the reader, there is a tangible tension; the expectation that something is going to crack is constant. This is a good thing. The plot is so well-paced, so full of subtle and poisonous machinations that the reader grows a little nervous at times, waiting for events to turn ill. Danger descends so swiftly and silently, that even the sleepier, relaxed scenes become filled with tension: this keeps the book interesting and pulls the reader along with every page. Seeing the story from three character’s viewpoints serves only to speed up the narrative and make the action come fast and quick, rather than trickling by. Although the first half of the book isn’t as gripping as the latter half, there is something to be said for the slower start; it settles the reader, welcomes them to this new world where Affinity is magic, King Rolen holds the throne, and war could be brewing. The pace of the latter half of The King’s Bastard varies from break-neck fast, to agonisingly controlled; Daniells’ draws out tension in all the right places, but ensures fights and action are as deft and sharp as a blade.

Why should I read this book?

The King’s Bastard is a tense book of political and—better yet—royal intrigue. It’s a game of Duelling Kingdoms played out on a real-life board, with people, loyalties and crowns at stake. The story of a king’s sons and daughter striking out on their own in whatever ways they must, the first in the trilogy introduces three amazingly addictive, likeable characters who carry the story forward effortlessly. It is a story of magic and illegal magic, friendship and betrayal, and the dangerous game of power. Full of misguided hearts, fiercely loyal friends and simply seeing things through someone else’s eyes, The King’s Bastard is a book that at once gently raises philosophical issues of perspective, whilst telling a story of a family struggling to tread water.

4/5

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