Details: (c) 2001 Jo Walton; Pub Tor 2002; ISBN 0-765-34340-1
Verdict: The King's Name is clever and original but didn't entirely hold my interest.
Reasons for reading it: Um. *squirms* I read the first half of the pair, The King's Peace, just before I started my journal. And while I liked it, I got very annoyed with the way it just stops dead in the middle of the story, without resolving anything. I have no time for books that absolutely force you to read the sequel, so I refused on principle to be so manipulated. And then I somehow ended up mentioning this to papersky; neither I nor Google can now find the relevant conversation, which may be a mercy as it involved me making an idiot of myself. Anyway, the upshot of this was that papersky convinced me that I ought to overcome my annoyance and read the rest of the story, on the basis that it is more one story that was divided into two by the exigencies of publishing, rather than a book and a sequel.
How it came into my hands: I bought it, out of a weird mixture of guilt at accidentally insulting the author, and awe at being in a situation where it's possible to interact directly with a real author. Anyway, I bought it in Montreal where books are a bit more reasonably priced than over here, so although my reasoning was not very sensible it didn't matter too much.
I did in fact end up talking about The King's Peace in my journal, because I rather foolishly ended up reading The Mists of Avalon straight afterwards and got into a discussion in the comments about how the former had completely spoiled the latter for me. Sadly, the comment monster ate that discussion, which is a pain. And given that I left about 30 months between reading The King's Peace and getting talked into The King's Name, it might have been better not to rely on memory. However.
I really like the way both books (I think their collective name is "the Sulien books", which I shall stick to because I dislike the word duology) approach the Arthurian legend as very explicitly alternate history. The setting is cool, the ways it feels historically solid and also the ways it isn't like the history of this reality. (I'm not sure I'd want to read a totally "realist" version of the Arthur story.) And the way the background is gradually unveiled works really well (it's possibly even technically a spoiler to mention that it's loosely based on the Arthur myth, but I would have a hard time saying anything intelligent about it without mentioning that aspect). One of the ways it's cool is that the characters seem to really belong in their reality and their time; they never explain or notice things that would be obvious to them, but the reader is never left confused.
There are magic elements to the story, but it somehow seems more like mysticism, or even maybe religion, than the magic I normally expect from fantasy. Also unlike a lot of fantasy, it would probably work even if you were skeptical about anything that violates the normal scientific view of the world, though it never falls into that annoying speculation about whether the supernatural is real or a collective delusion of the characters.
In general, The King's Name is doing really interesting things with religion. The gods in it have slightly more direct intervention in the world than in our reality, but only slightly, they're not reduced to the level of superheroes. The direct descriptions of religious experiences are very interesting; they are described in fairly prosaic terms without any hyperbole or mystical handwaving, but still seem Other, not mundane. And then there's some really interesting exploration of the interactions between old gods and new gods (which made me think of American Gods, and I actually think The King's Name compares favourably in this respect).
I was a little bit uncomfortable with the view of the analogue of Christianity in The King's Peace, and The King's Name was much worse on this score. But while it isn't kind to Christianity I don't think it's actually offensive (though of course, I can't really say because I'm not the one being offended), and when I'd read to the end I liked what had earlier seemed like sniping rather better. Very interesting ideas about the clash between monotheism and religious tolerance, which is something I can get excited about. I thought the stuff about freedom of worship was a little bit glib, but that's not really the point of the book.
I can imagine people who care about this kind of thing getting excited about the gender stuff. The world of the Sulien books is more or less egalitarian, but it doesn't make a big point of how feminist it is, it just is that way. And there's some cute stuff where it explores the consequences of it just being a given that women can take an active part in all aspects of life (though it doesn't magic away biological inequalities).
Having said all this about liking the setting, the trouble is that I'm not really enthralled by the story as story. I think this at least in part due to the way it's divided awkwardly. The King's Peace was pretty exciting but was spoiled for me by ending abruptly. And there's just not enough plot left for The King's Name; the second book pretty much describes a civil war and eventual victory, and that's about it. I don't really care for a lot of descriptions of battles, varied only with politics. I think the characterization suffers too, compared to The King's Peace; there are just too many interchangeable soldiers and interchangeable minor kings. Sulien gets a bit smug with age; her younger self in The King's Peace I found more likeable, but she's still a good viewpoint character and that does help a lot.
Oh, I nearly stopped reading The King's Peace a couple of pages in, because it starts with more detail about a rape than I really want to read. And I nearly stopped reading The King's Name a couple of pages in because it does that awful "better dead than paralyzed" thing. But I calmed down enough to realize that it is in character for Sulien, and more to the point appropriate for the setting, and in fact that comment is mitigated a little further on. But talk about starting off on the wrong foot!
I have a feeling I may have recommended The King's Peace to neonchameleon before, but anyway, I think he'd very likely get on with the Sulien books. And in general they're worth reading if you're a fantasy reader with an interest in something with more of a historical flavour than average. wychwood might like them too, I would guess. But anyway, you really have to read both to appreciate them, so people who don't mind that are likely to enjoy the books more than I did.