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Book Review: The Riven Kingdom by Karen Miller

# Genre: Epic/High Fantasy
# Mass Market Paperback: 768 pages
# Publisher: Orbit
# Publication Date: September 1, 2008
# ISBN-10: 0316008362
# ISBN-13: 978-0316008365
# Author Website

In this character driven epic fantasy, Karen Miller returns to the world she first created in Empress. In that novel, we were introduced to Hekat the slave girl who became empress of Mijak and her family, particularly her favorite son, Sandakar.

In The Riven Kingdom, Miller introduces readers to a new part of the world, the walled, island kingdom of Ethrea. Unlike Empress in which there is an unsympathetic main character and a tribal culture, Ethrea is the traditional, Western-style medieval society, ruled by king and Church. But Ethrea is in trouble. The King is dying, and all his children are dead except his daughter, who is both too young and traditionally unable to occupy the throne. Rhian is a strong-willed princess who refuses to become a ward of the church, especially since the prolate, Marlan, is a selfish, prideful man who believes only in himself. When Marlan makes a bid for power by attempting to marry Rhian off to a biddable lord, Rhian, with the help of Dexterity Jones the toymaker, Ursa, the healer, Sandakar the estranged son of the Empress of Mijak, and Helfred her personal chaplain, runs away. But Rhian is no wilting flower, and she runs away only to return and take what is rightfully hers.

Miller’s second novel is a bit more palatable than the first in the series. The strange dialogue syntax and unsympathetic, even slightly mad primary character made Empress a hard novel to enjoy uncritically. The Riven Kingdom on the other hand, has strongly sympathetic characters. Rhian is a noblewoman in all senses, and her suffering at the hands of Marlan generates a great deal of empathy from the reader.

Dexterity Jones the toymaker is the everyman character that Miller writes so well. His normal life is thrown upside down when his dead wife starts appearing to him and giving him instructions on how to save the princess from her plight. The other characters provide foils to Rhian and Dexterity, through whom much of the point-of-view is found; with occasional segues into Sandakar and – at the end of each section in the novel – Hekat.

Because the story is primarily about the war between church and state for control of Ethrea, Miller uses it as an opportunity to explore the theme of religion. But unlike other novels who have this as a theme, Miller does not brand one evil and the other good, but rather sees the notion of separation of church and state as a good thing, and individuals within each as good or evil. In keeping with the character driven plot of The Riven Kingdom the primary battleground is not on the field, but in the hearts of the characters.

Dexterity Jones lacks faith ever since his wife died. When she begins appearing to him and giving him instructions that work out, his faith is changed subtly. Ursa the healer is a big believer in the church, but when Dexterity comes to her and explains what is happening to him, even she is skeptical at the thought of miracles. Helfred the chaplain is loyal to the church above all else (Marlan is his uncle) and he endures a significant crisis of faith when he learns that God and the church are not necessarily the same thing. Sandakar too, who comes from a culture where gods are worshipped through blood sacrifice, is forced to learn that there is a religion of peace and tranquility.

It is in the secondary and tertiary characters that this internal battle over religion takes place. In the primary characters, such as Rhian and Marlan, we see the visible effects of this war between church and state. So the theme is addressed throughout the novel, in myriad ways. I was surprised that unlike so many other novels, religion in The Riven Kingdom is not panned as an “opiate of the masses” or lacking in any real depth, but is thoroughly integrated into the world and is real, alive, and effective. Much of speculative fiction today comes from an atheistic or agnostic perspective and so religion is often dumbed down or seen as broadly evil (depending on the worldview in question), but Miller’s novel refuses to be so straightforward. This makes the novel especially wonderful to read for any person of a religious persuasion.

The novel is not wholly self-contained, as it is part of a trilogy, but the battle between Rhian and Marlan is wrapped up nicely by its end. But in the case of this story, the end is just the beginning, as the metanarrative of the battle between good as represented by Rhian and evil as represented by Hekat is yet to start. It will, of course, be concluded in the final novel, Hammer of God.

I have always recommended Karen Miller’s work highly, and will continue to do so for The Riven Kingdom. Miller’s character-driven plot, remarkable theme, and enthralling world-building make The Riven Kingdom a wonderful read. I consider this Miller’s best novel yet and I hope you will agree.