I must preface the account of the book’s plot and characters given below with a quick apology, I had no idea how difficult it would be to describe what’s going on in The Baker’s Boy! The story is written in no fewer than 16 voices (though 6 dominate), and rather than an installment in a series the books, it’s more like the first chapter of a bigger book. So please bear with me, and hopefully I’ll get better at this…
At about 2am this morning I finally laid The Baker’s Boy to rest. As the first of three books that make up JV Jones’ Book of Words series, there’s much more to come- I wasted no time of getting started with volume II, A Man Betrayed, whilst eating my breakfast. My haste in moving onto the next book was less to do with exceptional writing (a far cry from it) and more to do with the fact that the final chapters of the book provide absolutely no closure on any of the characters, nor any of the story threads, leaving the reader with a cliff hanger that would do the most salacious soap opera proud.
The Baker’s Boy, set in the various territories of a medival-eque land dominated by Kings, Lords, Knights and war, follows the intertwined fates of six characters as their journeys inadvertently play into an age old prophecy. Jack, a boy of inauspicious parentage (his father unknown, mother branded a whore), is the book’s main character and seems to be tied by destiny, coincidence and sorcery to all the others. Having started as a browbeaten kitchen hand in Castle Harvell’s bakery, Jack is compelled to flee the Castle he grew up in by an unfortunate incident involving some burnt bread which sees him uncover his own ability to wield magical powers. Stumbling through the forest his path crosses that of Melli, the daughter of the country’s wealthiest noble and the unhappy betrothed of the sinister Prince Kylock, set to inherit his sickly father’s Kingdom. Stubborn yet naïve, Melli’s run away from the forced engagement, upsetting the machinations of her ambitious father, and throwing him at the mercy of his main rival, Baralis the King’s Chancellor, a dark and powerful sorcerer. Baralis is determined to increase his power over the Four Kingdoms by marring Prince Kylock to a distant Lord’s daughter instead- having himself conceived the Prince by raping the queen in a drug assisted sleep, he is single-minded about using the boy to bring to fruition a dark prophesy and his own control of the Crown. Against this backdrop Tavalisk, Archbishop of Rorn is seeking to shore up his own wealth and status by weighing into the politics of the marriage- most encounters with his character involve the consumption of rare delicacies and the formulation of devilish plans to foment a rebellion here, a crisis there. Meanwhile, a kindly old wiseman named Bevlin sets Tawl, a young Knight of Valdis, the task of finding the boy foretold by prophesy. Alongside the adventures of Melli and Jack as they seek to evade forces from the castle, we follow Tawl’s determined journey throughout the Known Lands to uncover a boy for whom he has no name or description, just a year of birth. It is clear to the reader that this boy is Jack, though how Tawl is ever to find him is a great source of puzzlement and frustration.
The plot is rich and convoluted and full of twists and turns and a lot of evil to keep the reader entertained. Furthermore the characters play their roles well- the noble knight, the damsel in distress, the evil sorcerer, the gallant young hero. Each plot development is provided with a good degree of depth by the rotating narrative- the story is told by major and minor characters alike to allow the author to fully explore events in distant lands and the scheming that is the cause of them. Although an original way to write a book, it unfortunately does interfere with the fluidity of the story, and the perspective of peripheral characters, though often amusing, cuts back on Jones’ ability to flesh out the more central.
Where the book is weakest is in the description. I picked up the Book of Words because I needed something to follow George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and it is clear Jones’ efforts simply don’t measure up. Martin set a high bar in detailing fantastical scenes from ship decks to castles and walls of ice, the scheming of his characters in the power play of court is high politics and everyone was involved, either using or being used by any number of other courtiers. Jones affords her characters fewer complex motives and they often lack the well-rounded development that Martin created- the incestuous Jaime Lannister, on the wrong side of the much loved Ned Stark is nevertheless vested with qualities of intelligence, loyalty and honour- Jones’ knight has a penchant for pretty girls and an amorous liaison with a whore, Maybor is driven only by greed and vanity, Baralis only by ambition, and Melli is headstrong and stubborn but cruelly naïve, as one would expect a spoilt little girl.
I recognize I was recently spoilt by the richness of physical descriptions in Shantaram and Game of Thrones, but Jones is a little lazy in painting a picture of her characters’ appearance. We know Jack is tall and strong and handsome, his hair floppy, Melli is dark haired and feminine, Baralis is raven like, with dark features and clawed hands. There isn’t enough here to paint vivid pictures in the minds eye that make the characters come to life. Oddly the only time Jones really invests in description is when she is dealing with food and wine, or the peculiar sexual ponderings of two castle guards.
Overall it lacks polish and sophistication, its target audience definitely the teenager or young adult. Nevertheless the galloping pace and great scope for development keep the reader engaged, just enough wile away an afternoon or two. If you’re looking for an epic saga that strikes all the right notes then go read A Song of Ice and Fire. If you like the classic battle of good and evil and you like a bit of fantasy you could do a lot worse than The Baker’s Boy.
Peacock Rating: 2 / 5
Marod’s Prophecy, to which each character’s destiny is intimately linked:
“When men of honor lose sight of their cause
when three bloods are savoured in one day
two houses will meet in wedlock and wealth
and what forms at the join is decay
A man will come with neither father nor mother
But sister as lover
And stay the hand of the plague
The stones will be sundered, and the temple will fall
The dark empire’s expansion will end at his call
And only the fool knows the truth”