The King's Name

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Series: Tir Tanagiri #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: December 2001
Printing: November 2002
ISBN: 0-765-34340-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 320

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This is the third part of a three-part story, the first two parts of which are combined in The King's Peace. While there is a summary of the previous book in the introduction, cunningly well-handled by mixing it into a summary of how the first-person narrative of the book is viewed in the future of this alternate world, I wouldn't recommend reading it without reading the prior book first.

It may be that I just missed the degree to which The King's Peace was an Arthurian by just not knowing the details well enough, since The King's Name quite clearly followed the Arthurian story. Even the annoying love triangle turns up here to a degree, although thankfully in a modified form that strikes me as both more realistic and involving far less stupidity on the part of those involved. It is far from a straight retelling, though, and The King's Name goes on to an ending with a much different tone.

This story is about preserving central government in the face of treachery and squabbling self-interest, but it is also about religion, and here is where I think it shines. Sulien's attempts to understand both the nature of the magic and gods of her own belief and the religious future of the land under the White God reach a satisfying conclusion, without falling into the trap of writing an ending to a question about belief. It's clear that one is meant to sympathize with Sulien's view and prefer the native gods, but it's still both clear and reasonable why so many follow the White God and the story avoids the trap of vilifying either. And the portrayal of the gods themselves, with a sense of awe and a feeling of powers beyond human scope, compares well with such accomplished fantasy authors as Guy Gavriel Kay.

While there is still a feel of a medieval war novel here, including some strategy and several detailed battles, I found The King's Name much better paced and less liable to bog down than The King's Peace. It focuses on politics and religion more than on the details of the combat, and is a better book for the change. The trouble, of course, is that this is a story of civil war and tragedy, and so I spent about half the book extremely angry and frustrated (and Walton writes a truly nasty villain), but even with tragedy I came away with a feeling of closure.

I also liked how the great events of war and treachery are brought firmly down to earth, with bickering and negotiation over peace treaties, personal rivalries, incompetent kings, complicated meshes of relations and races, worries of who to put on the thrones of various regions, and a refreshing lack of idolization of the Arthur equivalent. The edges haven't been all rounded off to focus on the drama; there's still gritty dirt in the cracks to give the reader a glimpse of what living through the wars might be like.

This story never blew me away, but it's a solid, competent, well-researched pair of novels, featuring strong characters with believable reactions and a nicely thought-out fantasy twist. Magic and the gods remain a constant part of the plot without ever taking it over and claiming center stage, which is an impressive balancing act. I wish the first book had been as engaging as the second, since as-is you have to do some wading to get through the story, but I think it's worth the trouble.

Oh, and compliments to Julie Bell, the cover artist, for two covers that fit events in the books and feature a female character who, like the hero, is tall, wears armor that might actually protect something, and is no great beauty. I wish all cover art were this faithful to the books it illustrates.

Followed in a manner of speaking by The Prize in the Game, which can stand on its own but expands on an event mentioned in passing in the duology.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-11-25

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