Here be Dragons

This is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to catch up with for ages, and this finally got to the top of my to-read pile. The opening is snappy – short chapters, lots of action, plenty of background detail that just about stops short of info-dump and a magic system that has me hooked right from the start, even if I don’t quite ‘get’ it yet.

But only a few chapters in, and already there are irritants. One of them is Kip. On the one hand, hurray for a main character who’s not super-handsome, super-intelligent, super-powerful, that’s fine. But he really is stupid, sometimes. And all the oh-no-he’s-going-to-die drama – no, actually, he’s not, he’s a main character, he’s going to escape by the skin of teeth. Again. And yet again… this is tiresome. Then there’s Gavin. He’s so powerful he can do a dozen impossible things before breakfast, and that’s just not interesting. And there’s the author’s habit of switching tense for a sentence or two. It’s intended (I think) to indicate internal thought, but with no other marker to differentiate it, it’s just confusing.

But the pace is fast, there’s lots of things going on and the magic system, with its use of colour to create physical artifacts, is unusual and interesting. There was a sticky patch of super-implausibility (Gavin, his long-lost son and the rebel king all meet at the same hick town at the same time, purely by happenstance? Really?) that almost had me abandoning the book altogether. And then there’s a Shocking Twist which even I, who gets surprised when farmboys turn out to be the heir to the kingdom, saw coming. And later there’s another Shocking Twist which is only marginally more unexpected.

The book could have done with another thorough edit. It’s not full of typos, but it feels quite rough in places and there are some big ‘what?’ moments. An example: Gavin learns that he has a son called Kip in a very early chapter, and he even muses a little on Kip. But when he actually meets him and hears that his name is Kip, it doesn’t register. Only when Kip’s mother is mentioned does he have his can-this-be-my-son moment. This sort of thing is just untidy, and it’s far from the only example. On pacing, the author has clearly read The Rules of Fantasy, especially the parts that say Thou Shalt have a Fight in every Chapter, and Thou Shalt end every Chapter on a Cliffhanger, but not, apparently, the one that goes Thou Shalt not take too much notice of these Rules, lest Thou seriously annoy Thy Readers, for Verily such tricks soon grow Tedious and make Thy Readers roll their eyes.

Kip the ‘natural’ son remained an irritant, and Karris wasn’t much better. Honestly, authors, can we please retire this tired old cliche of bastard children causing huge angsting and grief? This is fantasy, there are worse things around than the odd child conceived out of wedlock (like global wars, and out-of-control mages). And Karris… yes, let’s talk about Karris. Authors, a strong female character is not simply one who is physically strong, has extraordinary abilities, is the only woman in a man’s job. It means a character who is not defined by her gender OR by her relationship with a man. Karris may be the first woman in the Blackguard, may be the fastest drafter (colour-magic user) in the universe, but what drove her to that? She was betrayed and abandoned by a man. She goes to pieces around her man. She learns about the bastard child, conceived while they were betrothed, and she falls apart. Please. This doesn’t make her interesting, it makes her tedious.

Fortunately, things do eventually settle down into a more readable and less irritating story. The whole magic setup is nicely worked out to the last detail, and if it makes drafters incredibly powerful, there are subtleties in there which are quite brilliant. For instance, drafters use light in one of the colours to create physical artefacts, but what they can create and how the object can be used is entirely a matter for the individual, defined not just by their degree of ability but also by their imagination and intelligence. A smart drafter, even one of below average capability, can use their power in inventive and original ways, a great asset in war. There are also some nice details in other aspects of the author’s world. For example, it’s not polite to address a slave by name unless the slave has previously revealed it to you.

There’s a really interesting backstory lurking behind all the dramatic action and not-quite-believable characters, the story of the war between the two brothers, their family and the relationship with Karris’s family, and when the author focuses more on that and less on the Prism showing off his superpowers, the book actually rolls along very well. In time, I even became interested, up to a point, in Kip and, to a somewhat lower point, in Liv, the disgraced general’s daughter. The prisoner in the dungeon is also a great story, and I wish he’s been a bigger part of things (although to be fair there isn’t a lot to say about a man permanently locked away from the world).

But then, just when I was getting interested and the story was starting to fly, Kip goes off and does something totally stupid. Again. Now, I’ve given this book a good go, I’ve got two thirds of the way through and there’s stuff in here I really enjoy – the magic system is awesome, and the family history is intriguing. But… I really have very little tolerance for a book which substitutes relentless action and carefully contrived plot twists for character depth, believable motivation and emotional engagement. Lots of people love this book, so I accept that I’m in a small minority here, but I’m giving up on it. One star for a DNF.

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