Dan Chernenko, The Bastard King: Book One of The Scepter of Mercy (Roc, 2003)
The Bastard King by Dan Chernenko is the first volume of a promised trilogy entitled The Scepter of Mercy. In this first book, old King Mergus, the monarch of Avornis, is reaching the end of his days and has yet to produce a male heir despite his attempts with six wives to do so. Thus he takes a seventh wife, who does in fact give him a son at long last. He names this son Lanius.
This is not without problems, however. According to Avornan religion, a King can only take six wives in the course of a lifetime (lesser nobles and commoners are even more restricted). Mergus strong-arms his chief cleric (who holds the title of Arch-Hallow) into making an exception in this case, but in the eyes of many including that Arch-Hallow's successor this is inadequate, and while Lanius is never specifically denied his Royal status, he is viewed by most as a bastard, at least partially. Mergus soon dies, and the book partially tracks Lanius's rise to adulthood as a series of regents and figureheads rule in his stead.
The last of these regents is a man named Grus, whose viewpoint throughout the book alternates with that of Lanius. At the outset, Grus is a ship captain who patrols the waterways of Avornis, protecting the realm from its enemies: the Thervings, who serve the wily King Dagipert, and the Menteshe, who are thralls in service to "the Banished One" a deity who was actually banished from the realm of the Gods to the world of the mortals for some unnamed transgression.
The Bastard King spans somewhere around twenty years or so, switching viewpoints between Lanius and Grus as the former grows up and the latter rises in rank. Eventually, Grus comes to such power that he is able to declare himself King of Avornis, although he does not completely usurp King Lanius. Instead, he keeps Lanius as King ("I will be a King of Avornis, not the King of Avornis") to placate the people who adore the dynasty Lanius represents (although, since many, if not most, view him as a bastard, I was a bit fuzzy on this point). Grus, then, wields the true power of the monarchy as he fights a series of small wars with the Thervings and some of Avornis's own rivals who attempt to seize power on their own.
The strength of this novel is the dynamic between the two Kings, King Lanius and King Grus. Grus is the true strength behind the throne, and Lanius is basically a figurehead to maintain the connection to Avornis' history. Lanius isn't really all that interested in wielding power, but nevertheless he chafes under the restrictions Grus places upon him; and Grus, while willing to be ruthless when he feels it's called for, is basically honorable. Neither man really trusts the other, even when Grus forces Lanius to marry his daughter, whom in time he comes to love deeply. The relationship between Lanius and Grus is complex and well-done, if the circumstances behind that relationship seem contrived.
And there is my problem with The Bastard King: so much of this novel is just that. Contrived.
To begin with, the trilogy's title is The Scepter of Mercy. This is an item of great reknown, of mythical importance to the Avornans and once wielded by their Kings. The Scepter, though, long ago fell into the hands of the Banished One the evil God and so, every so often, Grus or Lanius will say something like, "If only we had the Scepter of Mercy!" The Scepter is this series' MacGuffin, and it's blindingly obvious that at some point there will be some kind of quest or mission to go recover the thing. But no quest unfolds at all in this opening installment of the trilogy, and what's more, we are never even given any explanation of just what the Scepter can do or why the Kings' lives would be so much better if only they had it. So there's this Object of Power, and they want it, but we never learn why, and they never make any attempt to actually go and get it. Imagine if The Fellowship of the Ring ended with Frodo having not even left the Shire yet, or imagine Casablanca consisting of nothing but Viktor Laszlo sitting around Rick's Café with Ilsa, saying, "I wish we had those letters of transit!"
My suspicion is that the Scepter will turn out not to be what the Kings hope it is one of those double-edged sword sort of things, an illustration of the old warning, "Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it." But Chernenko doesn't even give us reason enough to care about the Scepter.
The world-building here is also problematic. Religion is in evidence in Avornis, but none of it is really explored except for the bare minimum needed to get the plot moving. Six wives only? Fine, I can buy that as a religious doctrine but why? Is there a mythic background to this rule? Not that I can detect; it serves just to make Lanius a bastard in the eyes of many. And we know that a god was banished to earth, but again, why? What actions of his warranted this? Is he a trickster god, an evil god, a neutral god who lost a war, what? Chernenko specifically implies that the Avornans actually don't know why the Banished One was banished, but surely they'd at least have some kind of myth about it, no matter how tenuous that myth's connection to actual truth. And who are the other gods who did the banishing? Two are named, but their relationship is never explained. Never do I get the sense of an edifice of mythology and history behind the religion of Avornis. There are clerics moping around, and we're told of cathedrals, but that's all we really learn. The Avornan religion is more a plot device than a part of this novel's fabric.
The same applies to magic in The Bastard King. There are wizards and witches, who apparently wield sufficient power that wizards always take part in battles, but only one of these is developed as a character and again I can't detect any rhyme or reason to the powers they wield. Sometimes they can serve as virtual lie-detectors; other times they can't exert themselves for fear of expending themselves or being noticed by the Banished One or something similar. Magic, like religion, seems like a device to be invoked when needed rather than a part of the reality of the world depicted in this novel.
Basically, the whole feel of The Bastard King is that of an under-realized, underdeveloped world. I read about what happened, but there was precious little why. The novel plays out like a disjointed sequence of events, not a coherent novel. Why is so much space given to Lanius's interests in strange-creature husbandry? Why is Grus's son so nasty, and why is he suddenly injected into the narrative with no preamble at all? Wouldn't the Avornan clergy resist a bit when King Grus elevates his own bastard son to the very head of the clergy? Wouldn't the presence of two Kings lead to at least some tension in the realm?
And finally, I've noticed a trend lately of epic fantasy novels being published without maps of their imaginary worlds. I don't know if this is a cost-cutting gesture (but surely illustrators willing to draw these maps can't command that much by way of money), but I've always found maps to be almost essential in epic fantasy. Maps make the geography of these realms seem a bit more real. So come on, publishers. Get back to maps.
The Bastard King, ultimately, faces the task of making me want to read the forthcoming volumes of The Scepter of Mercy. Sadly, I must report that I have little wish to actually do so.