Here we have another of The Quill to Live dark horses for 2019, a very promising debut book called The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter. This book was pitched to me as “Gladiator meets Game of Thrones” which immediately perked up my interest – and I jumped in as soon as I could, thanks to a review ARC that the lovely people at Orbit sent over in exchange for an honest review. At the end of the day, I think that their description is fairly apt – this book does have a lot of the pulse-pounding arena fighting of Gladiator and the clever political machinations of Game of Thrones, both of which make the book a lot of fun. The Rage of Dragon’s problem is it doesn’t have much more beyond these two qualities.
The plot of RoD is best experienced knowing as little as possible. The book portions out world building and story developments sparingly, preferring to keep you in the dark. It works pretty well and Winter does a great job keeping the reader curious about what will happen next. The back of the book does a good job with the story blurb, but here is a brief summary of what is good to know going in:
The book follows the fate of the Omehi people as they flee an unknown scourge in their homeland. The prologue of the book sees them arriving as settlers on a new frontier with nowhere left to turn. However, this new land is not uninhabited and Winter tells us of “savages” who call it home do not take kindly to having their lands invaded. Thus begins a war of attrition between the Omehi refugees and the native savages of this tropical land. The book then jumps almost two hundred years later, where we see the Omehi have established a foothold and rudimentary society in the new land. They have managed to survive this long in an endless war through the power of their ‘gifted’. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons and one in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.
Everyone else in the Omehi are considered footmen in this endless war and are trained to spend their blood serving the greater good of their people. A man’s status in their world is related to their ability to fight. Our protagonist, gift-less Tau, knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured and get out early. However, when almost everyone he knows is brutally murdered he dedicates himself to becoming the greatest warrior in the land and seek vengeance no matter the cost.
The book spends 90% of its time in Tau’s head, with only brief forays into other characters in the name of world building. The story has many elements of a “magical school” story, with the majority of the page space being devoted to Tau’s training and lessons. The first quarter of the book flashes out what typical life for the Omehi is like, and the rest is about Tau going from zero to hero. This elongated training montage involves an enormous amount of fighting, often one on one. This book is bursting at the seams with fight scenes, and if you aren’t into action sequences you are going to have a bad time. The good news is that Winter is an excellent action writer – the combat is often gripping and invigorating. If you think combat is the pinnacle of fantasy writing you are going to love this book. The problem I had with The Rage of Dragons is that there isn’t enough substance to the characters and world building to accompany the fighting.
Tau isn’t a bad character, but he’s also not particularly deep. He doesn’t really think things through or have long term goals and it makes it hard to see the bigger picture in the book. He feels like he is being battered by the winds of fate and it can make the progression of the plot and story feel jittery and hard to be invested in. He is hard to identify with on anything other than a surface level.
The real issues I had with this book are in the world building – and they are many. The first problem is that the book is touted as an African fantasy, but feels more like a recolored European romp. The cast is entirely black, which I like, but the culture, magic, and attitudes of the characters feel directly transposed from any of the hundreds of traditional European fantasy books you can find in the genre. The book is really not great to women – at all. Omehi people claim to be a class based society led by women and one where men as seen as the lesser gender. We get to spend a good ten pages with the first queen of the people and see her do some absolutely amazing stuff. However, once Tau gets behind the wheel all of that is dropped harder than the writing quality in season 8 of Game of Thrones. Every woman that Tau interacts with in this book is a tool to give him praise, or someone to be murdered, and usually raped, to rally the reader to Tau’s cause. It makes the “ruled by women” claim feel paper thin and left a bad taste in my mouth. Additionally, the world feels over the top brutal – to the point where it overshoots grimdark and moves into edgy. Everyone is murdered for the slightest offense, life is garbage every waking moment, and the only purpose of 99% of the population is to die in the name of a nameless cause the reader doesn’t understand for a long time. The magic is interesting, but extremely confusing because the magic system is tied directly into the plot which is kept intentionally nebulous. Finally, the politics of the area are exciting and do a really good job of creating moments of tension, but they also feel archaic and unnatural in the setting.
The Rage of Dragons has some issues, but is a mix of good and bad. I feel that the world is underdeveloped and could have benefited from a little less time fighting and a little more time fleshing out the white space and trimming the grim brutality. On the other hand, the book is an action movie wet dream, with tons of amazing sequences and a satisfying growth arc that takes a young hero from nobody to somebody. Whether you think you would like this book is up to you, I would recommend you think about how much you like fight scenes and how important world building is to you when deciding to pick it up. Despite my issues with it, I still think I am going to pick up the sequel as Winter did a great job of capturing my curiosity and kept me reading. I just hope that some of the problems I had with book one are less pronounced in the sequels.
Rating: The Rage of Dragons – 5.0/10