Friday Five: 15 of London's Museum Treasures
New Releases: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

New Releases: Blackveil by Kristen Britain

Blackveil UKBlackveil (2011) is the fourth book in Kristen Britain's Green Rider series. Initially intended as a trilogy, the popular series has now extended to four books, with a fifth on the way.

The lead is Karigan G'ladheon, one of the kingdom's "Green Riders". Ostensibly a messenger service, they're much closer to Tolkien rangers - hooded badasses armed with magical abilities and moral certainty. Karigan, a young woman, has already proven herself an exceptional figure. Blackveil alludes to her earlier adventures in which she's quashed a rebellion, saved the king, saved the queen, saved the world and travelled through time. Many of the world's factions - good and evil - think that Karigan is really important. She's even earned the respect of the mysterious Eletians (immortal wood-dwelling poets with special bows, magic armor, unequaled grace and names like "Graelalea" and "Laurelyn").

Karigan's narrative is joined by a half dozen characters on equally innovative quests. Amberhill, a charming dilette nobleman-stroke-cat burger-stroke-vigilante is under some sort of magical compulsion, probably down to a ring he stole from enchanted pirates. Piecing together the backstory, it seems that a group of pirates have sailed the world for centuries, cursed by the same magical loot that gives them immortality. A good idea - Disney should make a film of it. 

Karigan's ex-kinda-boyfriend-thing, Alton D'Yer, guards a magical wall at the edge of the kingdom. On the other side of it is Blackveil Forest, formerly the ancestral home of the Elfletians, but then cursed and destroyed by Mornhaven, a dark and evil fire-eyed wizard/warrior who speaks in all capitals. Nasty stuff is happening over there, and Alton's carefully maintained defenses are crumbling. The musical help of Karigan's manic pixie bard-girl best friend is handy, will it be enough? (Dun dun DUN!)

Back in the center of the kingdom, Good King Zachary (who is zomg so hot) is betrothed to Lady Estora but secretly loves Karigan (and vice versa). (Incidentally, the descriptor "secretly loves Karigan" can be applied to at least four men in this book - and she's fairly awful to all of them.) Zachary is pretty much the epitome of all that is good and noble in this world, with his tragic marriage-to-be, his kingly demeanor and his love of horses and hounds. His "aura of regal majesty" (referred to a lot) is only upset when he thinks that Karigan may be in trouble, at which point his boiling-hot internalised love threatens to overwhelm him and he gets shouty.

There are a few more characters - the comic relief pirate (seriously, Disney would love this), the stern woman who runs the Green Riders, her wise old man companion (and his wacky devotion to his chickens - swiftly and fortunately forgotten) and a bunch of Elfletians who all converse in cryptic dialogue.

To give Blackveil credit, this is the first of the Green Rider series that I've read, and, except for that first chapter, there was absolutely no confusion about who everyone was and what was happening. The characters are all shameless stereotypes, but at least that makes them recognisable. And if all the scenarios are a combination of recycled high fantasy set-pieces and soap opera storylines, at least everything is easy to follow. 

However, even my lackluster praise is given begrudgingly. Blackveil isn't bad. It is, however, almost seven hundred pages of mediocrity, in which one-dimensional characters act out a smorgasbord of tropes lifted from teen movies, soap operas and The Lord of the Rings.

I found the character of most interest, at least comparatively, was "Grandmother". Grandmother is the heir to the Mornhaven's empire, and, despite being a fairly decrepit old crone (just so you know, ugliness is always the enemy of all that is beautiful and true), is successfully leading a group of half-assed minions through Blackveil in search of a lost army of zombie Elfletians. She's notable in a few ways. First, Blackveil opens from Grandmother's point of view, and for a brief, shining moment, it seemed like the book was going to have an unusual protagonist on a really interesting mission. (OH THE LIES.) Ms. Britain also presents Grandmother's perspective: she's not the villain, she's the wounded party, out for justice, etc. Fun stuff that actually makes you interested in the character.

Grandmother also faces real challenges. Besides being the only person in the book that's not a physical paragon, she actually does things the hard way - by herself. By contrast, Karigan D'Apostrophe is showed with magical items before stepping out of her home - including a phial of magical moonlight [so novel!]. Grandmother's got a fairly crap form of Blue Peter magic at her disposal, which uses a dwindling resource of yarn and minions to make work. A little old lady with a ball of yarn vs a time-travelling ninjaranger that's armed to the teeth. I know who I'm cheering for. Of course, by the second chapter of Blackveil, I had learned that Grandmother was the villain. Her perspective was objectively wrong, a legion of beautiful heroes were out to make sure she didn't get away with it.

But the reductive and predictable characters aren't the worst of it. Blackveil is boring. The bulk of this vast book is spent focusing on minutiae that neither builds characters nor heightens tension. There are endless descriptions - and not even particularly lavish ones - of training, packing, singing, gift-giving, past-poking, fine dining and wordless longing. There's even a chapter in which Karigan does the payroll. It isn't fun and it isn't character building; it is filler. It takes two-thirds of the book just to send a group of twelve people to the border of their own kingdom. At leastThe Fellowship of the Ring had a birthday party.

One particularly grating episode involves a three-chapter chunk of prom-porn. Karigan D'Apostrophe has been invited to a royal ball. Should she go? She doesn't want to go. She has to go. What will she wear? Will the king be there? Oh no, her dress is ruined. Where will she find another? She shouldn't go. Her friends can get a dress! Her dress is inappropriate. Everyone will laugh. Everyone is laughing. Is that punch? Why is that man talking to her? Gosh her hair is pretty. Th  king is nice! He smiled at her! He's with another woman! Why is the world so cruel?! [Meanwhile, the zombie Elfletians fidget impatiently.]

Not to linger on the prom-porn even longer, but it also demonstrates another issue with Blackveil: this world feels out of touch. This is especially grievous given that it is (charitably) a character-based fantasy. Karigan woez about her dress and her eventual solution is a local theatre's costume selection. So far, so good. Her result, however, is the costume of "Mad Queen Oddacious", an outfit described exactly like the Queen of Hearts (exactly how many Disney movies went into this making of Blackveil anyway?). On one hand, there's conceptually a bit of rough empathy - it is a dreadful outfit and everyone else (especially the queen-to-be) is soooo elegant and pretty. On the other, any rising sense of connection is lost when Karigan is heckled by people singing words at her from a children's song that we don't know. Presumably this is the most horrible thing to ever happen ever, but it means nothing to the reader, and all the info-dumping in the world can't make it feel like savage bullying. More than that, Karigan is a world-saving, Sauron-slapping ninjaranger. She's not a six year old. Is this really the best they can do? 

(Then again, Karigan also spends the first 63% of the book [real number!] preparing for the journey into Blackveil, but it isn't until she actually enters the evil forest, that she realises she never broke in her walking boots. ELITE NINJA RANGERS FTW.)

But this is a world where the Green Rider with the reputation for crazy practical jokes does things like "short sheet" beds - the wacky height of humor. Are there no in-world pranks? Or, at the very least, an anachronistic joke that could at least be funny? Like "Mad Queen Oddacious", there's a narrative goal there (a transparent one), but it is achieved by a creative shortcut that has no relation to either the world of the text or that of the reader. 

But Blackveil is fueled by awkward contrivances - clunky mechanics used to push the soap opera ever onwards. People overhear conversations repeatedly in Blackveil, a mechanic that gets very old, very quickly. Dim figures bellow prophetic instructions and mirrors show mysterious visions. No means of conveying information is too hackneyed: except of course, having people talk one another like human beings. Karigan and Lady Estora's rivalry for King Zachary is particularly fumbling, with evil courtiers, drugged drinks and other pratfalls all combining to drag out the love triangle as long as possible.

[Spoiler] Perhaps the single most ill-conceived moment in the entire book is when Zachary - semi-comatose - is drugged with an aphrodisiac so Lady Estora can consummate their royal marriage. As a bit of a narrative push, it makes "sense" - it'll no doubt get Estora pregnant without Zachary being responsible, so the love triangle is preserved, etc. etc. It is, however, rape. Were the roles reversed, I can't even imagine the outcry. (Actually, there wouldn't be one, because what's an epic fantasy without a bit of rape nowadays?) [Goes to be sick in a corner] [/spoiler]

Once started, it is hard to stop picking on Blackveil - it is a dull book of interminable length that failed to connect with me from its very start. And, although there's a lot wrong with this book (as my well-marked copy can testify), I don't actually think it matters. The fans that have stuck with this series since 1998 are unlikely to jump ship now, but as someone approaching it with fresh eyes, there's absolutely nothing interesting or distinctive about it. Blackveil isn't even brave enough to provoke real loathing - with the exception of one scene (spoilt above), there's not even anything upon which to focus my dislike; the book is an endless continuum of banality and boredom. Blackveil is fantasy tapioca: watery characters, tedious tropes, insipid contrivance and a few curious lumps that aren't for the squeamish.