I liked the idea of this book, and yet there are also a lot of fundamental ways in which I feel cheated by it. Bryan starts to create a pretty fascinating world (it’s yet another spin on Ye Olde Medieval Europe, but I’m perfectly willing to forgive that in a book if it’s handled with enough creativity) — but she never allows the reader to do more than dip a toe into the universe. The same goes for the characters. We learn about them, but we never get to experience deep emotions along with them. As a result, the whole endeavour just feels critically lacking in some fundamental ways.
Okay. So. Lys (fantasy-France) is governed by a king, but since the realm is so de-centralized into numerous duchies, the real power seems to rest with various magical orders. The most powerful and prestigious of these is the Order of the Rose, which uses glasswork to form and shape magic. There’s a potentially cool mythology behind all of this — it’s pseudo-Christian, but slanted. The Young God defeated and bound the Serpent, with the help of the Magdalen and his Paladins, but somehow also died in the process (it’s a little unclear how exactly all of that went). The Paladins go on to found the aristocracy and also the Order of the Rose; the Magdalen is the first of the Ladies of the Isle (who seem to also be Order of the Rose, but not within its hierarchical structure). The book opens with Averil, who has been studying on the Isle, recalled to her duchy by her dying father. This happens amid rumors that King Clodovic has basically gone off the deep end and is making power-grabs, possibly using dark magic. Along the way, her path crosses with that of Gereint, a boy with unpredictable magical powers, raised in obscurity because his mother didn’t want to surrender him to any order. Their magic blends together really well, in ways that are apparently new and unheard of to the Order.
Averil and Gereint both ought to be interesting characters. They fall into the typical fantasy trope of the princess and the farmboy, but that does not, in of itself, have to be a bad thing. Averil takes pride in her discipline and her learning, but there is wild magic surging up inside her, and so she gets a lot of conflict out of that. Or should. It’s more glanced at than really explored. Meanwhile, Gereint is so ridiculously powerful that he keeps accidentally blowing things up, so clearly something needs to be done to take him in hand. Unfortunately… no one ever really does anything. Members of the Order of the Rose just keep shuffling him off to each other, swearing up and down it’s because they know he has potential. We also learn a lot through observation rather than experience — Gereint will tell us what he’s learned about Averil by watching her, or guess at her moods, or just know something for no readily explainable reason. There’s a lot of telling rather than showing going on, which always disengages me from a book.
The book also kept looking like it was going to do subversive things, so far as being part of the high fantasy genre is concerned, but then it shied away from them. The villain, for example — there’s actually opportunity for him to be really interesting. We get this chapter early on from his point of view, and it’s clear that he has some justification for his thought patterns. Because, yeah, it does seem like the status quo was stifling and stagnated, and in his own mind, he could really easily be a freedom fighter. “Serpent” doesn’t have to automatically equal “evil”, after all — and so when Bryan started down that road, I was thinking we were going to get a more nuanced allegory, where the Serpent side of things isn’t Evil, just Chaotic, and so naturally opposed to Lawful/Order, and the story would be about finding balance between the two. But, no, all of that drops away, we never get to see things from his perspective again, and he ends up just being a generic Big Bad who’s throwing his power around because he can.
And then there’s Averil and Gereint. I so wanted their story to be subversive, too, because they’re clearly thrust into this “our powers complement each other therefore we must be soulmates, but oh no, we are star-crossed because how can a duchess wed a lowly farmboy, woe is us!” thing. I kept waiting for them to, I dunno, not be in love with each other — to realise that, yeah, our powers work together really well, but that doesn’t mean we have to go all One True Love on each other, maybe we’re just destined to be really excellent coworkers. But no. Nothing unexpected there, which was a pity. It’s also a shame that, despite opening on an isle run entirely by female ages, it’s not very far into the book before Bryan removes from sight or just plain kills off all the other women, leaving Averil as The Chick. I’m growing really weary of the idea that there can only be one woman of consequence in a fantasy story.
Overall, what I would say is that this book lacks depth. And in high fantasy, that’s a pretty big sin. Swords and sorcery alone doesn’t cut it any more. You need detailed world-building and complex characters. The Serpent and the Rose falls short on all accounts. It’s not bad — it’s just not particularly good, either. I might finish out the trilogy at some point, because I am afflicted with pretty acute curiosity when it comes to needing to know how a story ends, but I’m won’t be in a real rush.