The Riven Kingdom (The Godspeaker Trilogy #2) by Karen Miller is part of my catching up of all the fantasy novels I've been meaning to read over the years, and it's one of the titles so far that's led me to believe that Miller is possibly one of the most underrated voices in the genre I've encountered in a while. I tucked into book #1, Empress, a while back, and was a bit concerned that I'd lose the thread, but there was sufficient recap in book #2 that I wasn't at a complete loss; Miller touches on the pertinent bits without going overboard.
Indulged from a young age with an education and some instruction in less gentle pursuits, like fencing, Rhian is not your typical princess, and she's absolutely not going to allow a bunch of stodgy old men tell her who she's going to marry. Add a grasping, power-hungry religious leader to the mix, who seeks to control Rhian after her father's passing, and we're set up for the essential theme that runs through this book – the battle for the separation of church and state.
In fact, the theme of religion runs heavy throughout the trilogy, from the looks of things. In book #1, we meet Hekat, who justifies her grab for power through her faith in a hungry, violent god that demands bloodshed. She is ruthless in her actions, and though not a likeable character by any means, is fascinating to observe how she constantly does mental gymnastics to maintain her power and her stance.
Rhian also has to balance power and religion. She's from a deeply religious nation, and often her behaviour is very much that of an indulged, untried girl who's used to getting her own way. [I realise this might make people hate her as well.] Yet her intentions, compared to Hekat, are that of being a just, fair ruler. Much like Hekat, she has a great conviction that she is meant to rule, and will do what she must to attain her aims.
Not everyone in Ethrea is religious. We compare Marlan, the antagonist – the prolate who wishes to rule through a puppet monarch. He doesn't believe in a god but he will use religion as a way to control people. There is most certainly a strong nod towards the Catholic Church's machinations in this story. On the other hand, we have the formerly agnostic toymaker Dexterity, who gets dragged into the saga rather unwillingly – he has liminal experiences thrust upon him and he is granted god-given power to perform miracles. What he does with his powers is vastly different than what Marlan would.
The character I'm sure most loved to hate was Rhian's chaplain Helfred. At first he comes across as a thoroughly despicable, weak individual whose faith makes him annoying as all hell. Yet his redemption arc from a toadying sycophant to a man of true faith is perhaps the most satisfying.
The way characters deal with power – the gaining thereof and the loss, makes for a fascinating dynamic. We have former warlord Zandakar, reduced to a slave and rescued by Dexterity, whom I suspect will still play a pivotal role in book #3, and there is the way Rhian realises that she literally holds the power of life and death, and how she is then faced with the choice of what sort of ruler she will become.
I realise I've gone on a lot more with this review than I normally do, but that's because this is a book that made me think quite a bit. I will say this much: I didn't like any of the characters, except perhaps for Ursa the healer. Yet there is a lot going on here which makes it a worthy novel to read. There were moments when I felt there was literally a bit too much of a deus ex machina happening, yet I do have to admit that this very issue is central to the plot. Which makes me wonder about the rules applying to deities in this setting (which I'm sure Miller will go into eventually, or at least I hope so).
Miller doesn't shrink from graphic depictions of violence, and her characters (who occasionally verge on twee) are very much painted in shades of grey (which then redeems them), so I have to give her this much – she gives a few unexpected twists and turns but all in all delivers a solid and compelling read that has given me much to consider.