The Rage of Dragons – Little Too Much Rage, Not Enough Dragons

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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
-Andrew

Binti and Home – Why Isn’t This A Full Book

Whenever a series get explosively popular in fantasy and science fiction, it always inadvertently makes me feel like an old man. I always feel like I hear about new popular books weirdly late for someone who is literally a source of talking about new awesome books. I clearly need to read more of my competitors sites or do my job better. Anyway, speaking of new popular books, I managed to check out the wildly popular Binti, and sequel Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor recently. These books/short stories/(I don’t really know what to call these, maybe vignettes?) were sold to me as “the next Harry Potter”, which seemed like it might be a bit of an exaggeration, but then Nnedi Okorafor got an HBO show for one of her series and I figured I should probably check her out.

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While I think referring to Binti as the next Harry Potter might be a bit of a stretch, I do understand the comparisons. Binti follows the story, surprisingly, of Binti – a young mathematical genius from an African tribe who is the first of her people to get accepted into what is basically space Harvard, called Oozma Uni. I found some of Binti’s mannerisms a little grating at times (she tends to yell a lot), but generally liked her. In addition, the university is a place filled with all sorts of interesting space races and forms of study. Spending time exploring the university gave me the same sort of whimsical feeling as being exposed to Hogwarts. The primary function of the story (at least the first two installments) is to talk about Binti’s personal story and her relationships with her friends and family. Binti spends almost no time at the Uni and Home spends a brief stint there before jumping back to Earth to talk about Binti’s relationship with her family. I was pretty frustrated we didn’t get to spend more time in this giant place of learning, but at the same time Binti’s personal story and her interactions with her family were also interesting and fun.

This leads to my major issue with Binti, I feel like the series suffers a lot from not being a full book. There is a level of worldbuilding here on par with some of the biggest and most expensive science fiction I have read, but the series had a size and scope comparable to a short story. I felt like I was being forced to sprint down a hall of wonders and everything I saw for a second captivated my interest, but didn’t get to stop and explore any of it. That being said, everything I saw was awesome. I love the races, cultures, and technology of Binti. Nnedi Okorafor seems to really like bio-technology, with the stories containing tons of living tech – which I found super cool. Learning about African culture in a science fiction setting was also a blast and I wish someone would write a large full book with the full concept.

At the end of the day I found Binti both wonderful and frustrating. I had a great time reading it, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could be such a bigger and better experience if it had a full novel. It is definitely worth your time though, and at under 100 pages for each segment takes almost no time to read. If you are looking for a story of an intrepid young African mathematician finding her way in the world, well then this might be the book for you.

Rating: Binti – 7.5/10
Rating: Binti: Home – 8.0/10

-Andrew

The Prey Of Gods – Gods And Robots And Popstars (Oh My)

y648Two of my favorite things come together in today’s review: interesting settings and science fiction/fantasy mashups. The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden (her debut novel), takes place in South Africa and has a whole lot going on including reborn gods, super drugs, mind control, and AI gaining sentience to name a few. The excellent cover caught my eye, and when I read the first chapter and it ended with gay sex between a dolphin and a crab I was intrigued to know what the next chapter had in store (you know you are a little curious).

The Prey of Gods most reminds me of American Gods by Neil Gaiman, in all the best ways. The story tells of several fantastical players’ machinations coming to a head in the modern age. There is an age-old sadistic goddess stuck doing manicures for a living as she tries to regain her power. There is a young boy who is discovering that he has the power to mind control others while he is high. There are AI servants who are slowly gaining consciousness. All of these people are thrown into a pot where they work against and with one another to create this weird tapestry that feels hectic, but is a blast to follow along with.

This book might have the most diverse cast I have ever read, and I guarantee it has something for you. My personal favorite character is a politician who turns into a drag pop diva as the story progresses, as he is hilarious. While his story didn’t appeal to me initially – his personality is magnetic and I just loved the way his voice on the page pulled me in. Drayden has a real talent for multiple POVs, as she managed to give her characters very different voices while also maintaining a nice cohesion across the story. Another favorite of mine is the robots. As opposed to most robot uprisings that I have read, this is more an uprising of robot moms? One of the AI’s is observing a second POV and is essentially concerned for his health and is constantly worried about him – which was adorable. Despite the fact that there were definitely POVs I liked more than others, there weren’t any I disliked.

Despite a messy start, the story quickly solidifies into a clear plot. I mentioned the sadistic goddess? She is quickly established as the antagonist of the book, and it is up to the rest of the ensemble cast to band together and pool their skills to stop her. Drayden does an excellent job mixing her crazy ideas with small poignant emotional moments between her characters that get you invested quickly. My favorite scenes varied between huge flashy displays of magic, and small quiet conversations between family members. It is a book that knows how to balance the serious and the fun to make you appreciate both.

If I had any critique for the book it might be that despite being set in South Africa, I didn’t feel like I got a strong enough sense of the culture and environment I was immersed it. Drayden does show us some of the old goddesses, tribes, and cultures of the land but I never quite found myself fully transported into Africa in quite the way I was hoping, but this could be just as much a failing on my part.

Overall, The Prey of Gods is an incredible debut from an author with a vivid imagination, and a talent for bringing tons of different POVs to life. This book felt like a stand alone, but there is definitely room for a sequel if Drayden wanted to, and I would be happy with any additional books she cared to write. The Quill to Live definitely recommends you check out this wacky and poignant adventure sometime soon.

Rating: The Prey of Gods – 9.0/10