Book Review: The Rage of Dragons

rage of dragonsThe Rage of Dragons
by Evan Winter
Fantasy
535 pages
Published July 2019

You know how so many fantasy books have reluctant hero protagonists? This is not that. Well. The first couple of chapters are. But then Tau decides he’s going to be the BADDEST MOTHERFUCKER IN THIS LAND. Tau is, hands down, one of the most hard-core protagonists I’ve read in a very long time.

Content Warning: Brutal book. I’ll be talking about some of the imagery.

The Rage of Dragons is about determination, combat, and the will to live. I’ve always been wary of books based on “endless war” but this was actually very well thought out, and it makes sense. The Omehi were a people exiled from their homeland; they sailed across the sea to find a new land, and became colonizers. They are thoroughly outnumbered by the native Hedeni, but they have magic. They settle on a peninsula but are unable to push further into the mainland, even with their magic and dragons. The jacket copy says “a hundred thousand years” but the text picks up 186 cycles after the prologue (which covers the initial landing) and I assumed cycles meant years. Jacket copy often exaggerates things, so I’m going with 186 years, not a hundred thousand. It seems more likely.

So in two hundred years, neither side has managed to score a decisive victory over the other; the Omehi have held the territory they carved out for their people, built cities, and farmed land. The Hedeni continue to raid the edges, occasionally pushing further in and wreaking havoc.

The Omehi also have a rigid caste system; the only hint of upward mobility is the Gifted, who come from all castes, and the military, which glosses over some caste restrictions but not all. Tau is a Common who is tired of being shat on by the Nobles, and he sees the military as his ticket to getting vengeance. (Military members can challenge each other to blood duels without repercussions for defeating those of higher castes.)

An interesting point I’d like to make is though several people died to further the main character’s plot, which is usually known as fridging – they weren’t -killed-, exactly. They all had agency. They all took actions they knew could or would end in their deaths, and they did them anyway. So while it is death to motivate the main character, it did not rob them of agency in doing so, so I’m not sure it technically counts as fridging. Even if it does, it was masterfully done and I don’t actually mind it in this context.

There is A LOT of combat and gruesome death in this book. This is a BRUTAL society. People get hurt and even killed in training – hell, they get killed in the TRYOUTS for the military. In one of the first few chapters there is an off-page rape, then victim-blaming and revenge-killing. It’s also rape of a lower-caste by a higher-caste, so there is some brush off there of “oh it’s just a servant” variety. The book does NOT pull punches.

But it’s a truly great book. More than once I stared at the page and said, ALOUD, “Holy SHIT, Tau!” It was easy to see why something snapped in Tau’s soul, and I’m eager to see his character development in book two.

Brutal, vivid, hardcore book that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the last page.

From the cover of The Rage of Dragons:

The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for a hundred thousand years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.

Young, gift-less Tau knows all of this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down tot he simple life: marriage, children, land.

Until those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fueled by thoughts of revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path: He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live. A man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.

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Book Review: Shatter the Sky

shatter the skyShatter the Sky
by Rebecca Kim Wells
Young Adult / Fantasy
294 pages
Published July 2019

I saw this described as “angry bisexual dragon riders” and while I didn’t know if the bisexual applied to the dragons or to the riders, I really didn’t care. Either way, I NEEDED THIS.

It’s fantastic. It’s a -little- simplistic, but I loved it anyway. Maren loves her girlfriend, Kaia, and when Kaia is abducted by the emperor’s prophetic servants to be inducted into their ranks, she gets mad. She would have been happy to live a quiet life with Kaia, but instead our girl’s going to BURN IT ALL DOWN. You’d think prophets could avoid this drastic misstep, but then we wouldn’t have a book!

Maren is biracial; her father is from down the mountain, from a more accepted ethnicity, while her mother is Verran. Verrans used to be dragon riders, but the emperor stole their dragons and refuses to let any Verrans near them for fear the dragons will go back to them. Maren is able to disguise herself as Zefedi, her father’s ethnicity, to get work in the fortress where dragons are hatched and trained. Her Verran ancestry gives her some advantages with working with the dragons, though.

There’s a bit of a love triangle, though it could turn into a polyamorous situation. I’m obviously hoping for the latter, but we’ll have to wait for the second book, Storm the Earth, to find out.

Sexuality in this book was very matter-of-fact – Kaia has two moms, absolutely no one has a problem with two women being together. Lovers/spouses are called Heartmates, rather than anything gender-specific. I love it so much when fantasy books do this! And Heartmates is a BEAUTIFUL term that I adore.

I really enjoyed Maren rediscovering dragon lore – I find it a little unbelievable that the Verrans didn’t keep some secrets passed around under the nose of the emperor, but I suppose even if they did, that doesn’t mean some random village girl would know about it. So Maren has to learn it all for herself.

To sum up: LOVE this book. Cannot WAIT for the sequel!

From the cover of Shatter the Sky:

Raised among the ruins of a conquered mountain nation, Maren dreams only of sharing a quiet life with her girlfriend Kaia – until the day Kaia is abducted by the Aurati, prophetic agents of the emperor, and forced to join their ranks. Desperate to save her, Maren hatches a plan to steal one of the emperor’s coveted dragons and storm the Aurati stronghold.

If Maren is to have any hope of succeeding, she must become an apprentice to the Aromatory – the emperor’s mysterious dragon trainer. But Maren is unprepared for the dangerous secrets she uncovers: rumors of a lost prince, a brewing rebellion, and a prophecy that threatens to shatter the empire itself. Not to mention the strange dreams she’s been having about a beast deep underground . . . .

With time running out, can Maren survive long enough to rescue Kaia from impending death? Or could it be that Maren is destined for something greater than she could have ever imagined?

Book Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

priory of the orange treeThe Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
Epic Fantasy
830 pages
Published February 2019

Holy COW, you guys. I keep saying “I haven’t read much epic fantasy lately” and “I don’t have time to read such long books/series” but I made an exception for Priory, and I’m SO glad I did. Just WOW.

So the basic premise of this world is that The Nameless One (some gigantic evil dragon) was locked away a thousand years ago, and all his minions with him. The exact details of how and who did it have been mostly lost to history. It’s said that as long as the House of Berethnet rules Inys, he’ll never rise again, and Berethnet queens always have one child, a daughter. The current queen, however, is unwed, and minions of The Nameless One have begun rising, and in fact have conquered a few neighboring nations. We have three main factions of countries; The East, who have dragon riders, but make a distinction between their dragons, who are aquatic and identify with the stars, and the evil minions of The Nameless One, who are full of fire. Then we have Virtudom, which is headed by Inys, and is a coalition of countries who have made a religion of the Knightly Virtues. This is the West, and they make no distinction between the draconic servants of The Nameless One and the water dragons of the East. This has forced a split between the West and the East, because Virtudom won’t have anything to do with countries that have anything to do with dragons, because most of what they see is the third faction – the Draconic countries. These are countries conquered by minions of the Nameless One, and they are full of chaos, fire, evil, and plague.

This is the world the book opens on. Most of our main characters – Queen Sabran, her handmaiden Ead, the dragonrider Tané – are women, but we also have Doctor Niclays Roos, an alchemist, and Lord Arteloth Beck, a friend of the Queen. In this world, women are just as capable as men, and are treated as such. There are female knights, and same-sex relationships are just as ordinary as opposite-sex ones. There is a bit too much moral emphasis placed on monogamy/sex within the bounds of marriage, but I guess that’s “Knightly Virtue” for you. Skin color is only mentioned a couple of times, but I seem to remember Lord Arteloth being described as very dark-skinned, and Ead as golden-brown. Rather nice to see a fantasy NOT all caught up in racial and gender differences. Not to say there isn’t a fair amount of bigotry, but in this book it’s based pretty much solely on nationality and religion. And when the biggest sticking point is “do you like evil dragons or not” that kind of makes sense!

I think the only thing I didn’t like about this book was its size. It’s unwieldy to read, at over 800 pages! I’m not sure why they didn’t break it into a duology. Regardless, if you have the choice, I’d read it on Kindle. It would be far easier to handle. I’m not complaining about the amount of text, mind you. Just the sheer physical size. I can’t imagine the story being told in less time. There’s So. Much. Here.

This book goes from Queen Sabran’s court to the dragonrider academy in the East, to the draconic kingdom of Yscalin, to the Abyss where the Nameless One sleeps. We see glittering courts, hidden islands, sweltering tunnels through volcanic mountains, and deep valleys with secret magic trees. We battle wyrms and cockatrices, swim through endless seas with dragonriders, sail through storms with pirate crews, and navigate the trickiest of diplomatic matters with courtiers. The Priory of the Orange Tree paints an elaborate, incredibly complex world and I am absolutely here for it.

Okay, so one tiny quibble – while I liked the romance, I feel like it started kind of oddly. I didn’t see any reason for the initial spark. From there, it progressed perfectly, but I just didn’t get the beginning.

This book has multiple queer couples! There’s at least one same-sex couple mentioned as attending a party; Doctor Roos spends a lot of time mourning his dead lover, and there’s the lesbian romance between a couple of main characters. And one character has at least strong affection for a man before falling in love with a woman; I think she was in love with both. No trans or ace rep, but plenty of gay, lesbian, and bi!

This is hands-down the best book I’ve read so far this year. It took me three days – it’s a big book – but it is absolutely fantastic.

From the cover of The Priory of the Orange Tree:

A WORLD DIVIDED.
A QUEENDOM WITHOUT AN HEIR.
AN ANCIENT ENEMY AWAKENS.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction – but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

Book Review: Fire & Heist

fire and heistFire & Heist
by Sarah Beth Durst
Contemporary Fantasy/Young Adult/Urban Fantasy
290 pages
Published December 2018

I picked this up off the library shelf for the title; I took it home for the description. Were-dragon thieves? Awesome. It turns out it’s not that simple. For one, the were-dragons have lost the ability to transform over the years – the last dragon to transform was Sir Francis Drake, and the book is set in modern times, so, at least a couple hundred years have passed. And humans know the were-dragons exist! I suppose without the ability to transform, they’re little more than rich celebrities with parlor tricks. (Immune to fire to certain temperatures, ability to breathe fire.) What humans don’t know is how much the wyverns tend to steal to enrich their hoards. And that some of them can do limited magic.

We open on Sky, sixteen, rattling around her mansion, dealing with her now dysfunctional family of three brothers and their father. Her mother went missing not very long ago, during a heist. The kids have been told she’s gone, she’s alive, she’s not coming back, and to drop the matter. Were-dragon society almost exiled all of them for whatever their mother got into, so they’re all on thin ice. Sky, of course, is having none of this. When she stumbles on a lead for where her mother went, she pursues it, and learns all kinds of secrets.

The book was okay, I suppose. I was a little appalled at were-dragon society, and that the dragons just – bow to the authority of the Council. Dragons should have more spine. The heist part was pretty cool, with Sky and her friends figuring out how to take apart every layer of security piece by piece.

I don’t know. It was a fluffy book, but not a feel-good book, and I just wasn’t that enthused.

From the cover of Fire & Heist:

Leading your first heist is a major milestone in Sky Hawkins’s family – even more so than learning to talk, walk, or do long division. It’s a chance to gain power and acceptance within society. But stealing your first treasure can be complicated – especially when you’re a wyvern, a human capable of transforming into a dragon.

Embarking on a life of crime is never easy, and Sky’s mission uncovers deep secrets about the mother who recently went missing, the real reason her boyfriend broke up with her, and a valuable jewel that could restore her family’s wealth and rank in their community.

With a handpicked crew by her side, Sky knows she has everything she needs to complete her first heist – and get back the people she loves in the process. But instead, she ends up discovering a dark truth about were-dragon society – a truth that is more valuable and dangerous than gold or jewels could ever be.

Book Review: Damsel

damselDamsel
by Elana K. Arnold
Fantasy/Young Adult?!
309 pages
Published October 2018

Before I even get into this review.

CONTENT WARNING. DOMESTIC ABUSE. SEXUAL ASSAULT. ANIMAL ABUSE. GASLIGHTING. 

For all that, though, I loved this book. The protagonist suffers through all of that and perseveres. But it’s important to expect those things going into this book, because the central plot of the book is our protagonist being severely gaslit, with the rest of the abuse being in support of that. I agree with other Goodreads reviewers that it’s surprising it’s being marketed as a Young Adult book because these themes are VERY adult.

So. With those caveats, this book was outstanding. The book opens on Prince Emory riding his horse towards the castle of the dragon, intending to slay it and rescue his future wife, as his tradition in his kingdom. Emory seems to be your typical prince, accomplished, at ease with his sword, his horse, and himself, yet there is the occasional part of his inner narration that comes off…oddly. He enters the dragon’s castle, defeats the dragon, and leaves with his prize, a damsel who can remember nothing about herself or her past. A blank slate. Perfect for a queen-to-be.

But as Ama, so named by Emory, learns more about her new kingdom and future husband, and what her place will be, she realizes this is not what she wants. The more Emory tries to convince her that it IS what she wants, the more we get into the abuse factor of the book.

It’s very well done. It’s a dark fairy tale, it’s a consistent metaphor for – well, humanity’s treatment of women, really. Sit down, shut up, look pretty, and birth the next generation. You are important because only you can do that, but don’t let it give you uppity ideas. All that kind of patronizing misogyny.

I really loved this book, but it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and the triggers might be too much for some of the people who WOULD otherwise like it. So know that going in.

From the cover of Damsel:

THE RITE HAS EXISTED FOR AS LONG AS ANYONE CAN REMEMBER

When the king dies, his son the prince must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon or what horrors she faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome young man, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny of sitting on a throne beside him. It’s all like a dream, like something from a fairy tale.

As Ama follows Emory to the kingdom of Harding, however, she discovers that not all is as it seems. There is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows, and the greatest threats may not be behind her but around her, now, and closing in.

Elana K. Arnold, author of the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, has written a twisted and unforgettable fairy tale, one that is set at the incendiary point where power, oppression, and choice meet.

Book Review: Inkmistress

inkmistressInkmistress
by Audrey Coulthurst
Young Adult/Fantasy
392 pages
Published March 2018

As I mentioned on Friday, this book is the prequel to Of Fire and Stars, so I read it first, even though it was published second. I prefer to read in chronological order when I can.

Inkmistress follows Asra, a demigod of unknown parentage, as she first follows and then is chased by her lover-turned-dragon who is intent on vengeance for the destruction of her village. Her lover, Ina, is convinced it is the King’s fault that the village was destroyed, as he’s been letting bandits roam over the outer reaches of his kingdom unchecked. So after taking on the form of a dragon, she’s off to kill him to avenge her family. Asra is trying to talk Ina out of it, and chases her across the country, from their remote mountain to the inner forests and cities.

I really love Asra. Ina’s kind of a bitch, but Asra is loving and funny and just an awesome person, fighting to protect herself and those she loves, even as those she loves evolve and change past what she can hold onto. Her magic takes a terrible price if she uses it, both on her and on the rest of the world. She has to wrestle with so many unknowns – her parentage, her magic, the world off her mountain, politics, other demigods – and somehow she manages to land on her feet. (Though not without help!)

The romance is sweet, and I love the emphasis on chosen families. Both Asra and Ina appear to be bisexual, which also doesn’t appear to be unusual in this world. Reviews of Of Fire and Stars complain about the lack of worldbuilding, which is NOT a problem in this book. Perhaps I’ll have an easier time having read this book first; which is a bit of a problem – you shouldn’t have to read a prequel to understand the setting of the first book in a series! It does make me glad I’m reading them in this order, though.

I really loved this book. The urgency of the chase really came through in the story – Asra had to get to certain places and get certain things done before certain times, and obstacles thrown in her way made you worry she wouldn’t get things done in time. It was well-written, with good character development of Asra, at least, and great world-building.

From the cover of Inkmistress:

Asra is a demigod with a dangerous gift: the ability to dictate the future by writing with her blood. To keep her power secret, she leads a quiet life as a healer on a remote mountain, content to help the people in her care and spend time with Ina, the mortal girl she loves.

But Asra’s peaceful life is upended when bandits threaten Ina’s village and the king does nothing to help. Desperate to protect her people, Ina begs Asra for assistance in finding her manifest – the animal she’ll be able to change into as her rite of passage to adulthood. Asra uses her blood magic to help Ina, but her spell goes horribly wrong and the bandits destroy the village, killing Ina’s family.

Unaware that Asra is at fault, Ina swears revenge on the king and takes a savage dragon as her manifest. To stop her, Asra must embark on a journey across the kingdom, becoming a player in lethal games of power among assassins, gods, and even the king himself. Most frightening of all, she discovers the dark secrets of her own mysterious history – and the terribly, powerful legacy she carries in her blood.

A sweeping and romantic fantasy full of dangerous magic and dark choices, from the author of Of Fire And Stars.