It seems if you throw together some knights, a princess and vague religious imagery, the story tells itself. Kathleen Bryan's The Serpent and the Rose, the first book of her "War of the Rose" trilogy, relies on these conventions, but thankfully does not rest upon them. In this finely wrought tale of a beautiful heiress and the young, mysterious man who becomes her companion, she reveals a noteworthy talent, leaving you wanting more--even after this effort unravels a bit.
Brought to a time that is indefinite but distinctly medieval, we are introduced to Averil, the heir to the duchy of Quitaine. Copper-haired and radiant, and brimming with the magic she's studied her whole life, she's returning home at the request of her father, Duke Urien.
Simultaneously, we meet the gangly, turbulent (and unfortunately named) Gereint, a teenage farm boy who senses in himself a great and wild ability to perform magic, but whose mother discourages him from pursuing his talents. Feeling as though his magic is going to explode, Gereint runs away and joins the Knights of the Rose, a legion of gallant men who keep order and preserve the country's Christian-like code of conduct. Gereint, quite a bit older than the rest of the novices and of uncertain parentage, feels dismayed and self-conscious. But elder knights keep demonstrating a mysterious confidence in him--much to the young farmer's astonishment.
Unfortunately, both Averil and Gereint have arrived at the Kingdom of Lys at a time of great turmoil. An evil king, frustrated by his inability to do magic, has decided it's time to unleash the long-imprisoned serpent, whose release will allow chaos to rule. Pitted against the king are the Knights of the Rose, who fight in honor of the Young God, who captured and bound the serpent many years before.
Averil's father, aware that the king would gladly kill her, orders his daughter to dress as a servant. As she lingers in the library and mucks horse stables, she meets Gereint, and the two become friends.
But well before Gereint is able to become a knight, and too soon after Averil returns to a home she barely knows, the king launches a ferocious attack that decimates the knights' order. In the heat of battle, Gereint discovers the true, deadly strength of his powers.
Shocked and weakened, Averil, Gereint and the knights leave the kingdom and enter the woodlands, where they discover a whole realm of magic--wild magic--that proves to be far more powerful and important than either of them had known. And as they move, the two discover something even more surprising: Their individual magical talents are far, far more potent when combined. As they grow closer, each is enticed by the other--and saddened by the knowledge that Averil, by law, has to marry a noble-born man. As the king's forces loom, and the order they know begins to collapse around them, Averil and Gereint trust in their shared magic to guide them forward, all the while testing the boundaries of their attraction.
Bryan is a talented lyricist who laces her tale with rich descriptions of stained glass, deep forests and the vibrant love that forms between her hero and heroine. Bryan describes herself as a "refugee medievalist," and her training shows its influence in the classic imagery of medieval texts: knights in armor, threatening forests and glittering castles. This will entice the fantasy novice, but a seasoned reader might glimpse some clichés in Bryan's descriptions, and hunger for something more inventive than serpents, roses and magic.
The book's allusions are distinctly Christian: Who else could be the Young God who binds the evil serpent? Still, Bryan's book isn't distractingly dogmatic: It explores, however metaphorically, the important topics of church corruption, tradition's constraints and what it means to be blinded by your beliefs.
When you're creating a series, as Bryan is, there's a fine balance between telling enough to satisfy and showing restraint for the sake of suspense. Unfortunately, in The Serpent and the Rose, Bryan errs on the former side: She unspools an abundance of narrative threads but reels none of them in. The effect is that the book is anticlimactic and quite frustrating--it fizzles into the next book, rather than surges. It's not complete in its own right; waiting for the next installment will be frustrating rather than exciting.
Still, it will be worth it. It will be exciting to see the unstable Gereint find his potential, to see Averil fulfill her destiny as a ruler--and to see if Bryan, a pseudonym for Vail resident Judith Tarr, can emerge as a prominent voice in fantasy.