Bard IV. A Bloody Culmination.

I have been belatedly reading through Keith Taylor’s Bard series. I was going to write “working my way through” but that phrase suggests effort, labor. The Bard books are effortless. Reading them is a joy, not a chore.

Book Four, Ravens Gathering, is, as the title suggests, a story of a convergence, a gathering. Characters, entire armies, are gradually brought into position for a climactic confrontation. The book is a culmination, as characters and storylines from the previous volumes come together for a final resolution. In some ways the eponymous bard, Felimid mac Fal, become merely another point of view character, one among many. This is no longer his story alone, but that of various chieftains from either side of the English channel, and — most notably — Gudrun Blackhair, Felimid’s pirate queen lover.

Given the nature of the book, the plot is less innovative and fantastical than the previous entries. We are, broadly speaking, dealing now with prior acquaintances, not making new ones. But it is nonetheless gripping as, with various false starts, inconclusive engagements, and close shaves, the parties converge on Gudrun’s pirate lair for the final showdown.

There is about this novel (and, perhaps the prior two) a faint echo of Robert E. Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast, his tragic tale of Conan’s romance with Belit. I can only assume that was intentional. It provides an undertone to the narrative hearable only by those familiar with the S&S canon. That’s good writing.

And the end can be perceived as truly the end, a terminal point for the series. It can also be read as a fresh start for Felimid, offering new vistas for both writer and reader.

I found it interesting that this novel offers few entirely sympathetic characters. While that doesn’t make it “grimdark” it does offer a point of similarity with much of contemporary fantasy, with all the characters being bastards possessing morality of varying shades of gray. Here we’re dealing with pirates, pillagers, and sociopaths, whether human, divine, or otherwise. The ending can, from a certain point of view, be seen as a happy one. Consider the point of view of any of the coastal villagers. A reduction in piratical predation could only be considered a boon. And Odin certainly came away pleased with his sanguinary harvest.

But we readers have grown to know these characters. So Bard IV might be more tragic than satisfying to some readers. Who lives, who dies? I’m not telling. You’re favorite pirate might survive or might not. You’ll have to read and find out for yourself. Still, it is a Keith Taylor novel, so you’re in good hands.

Speaking of thieves (pirates are just seaborne thieves, after all), if you like Bard IV, you might also like Thick As Thieves, my crime/S&S novel. Also available here.

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