Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Dragon's Legacy by Deborah A. Wolf review


    There's multiple kinds of fantasy: There's high fantasy which is elves, dwarves, and unicorns that can have dark elements but is mostly about heroic narratives. This dark fantasy and grimdark which is about taking the nastiness of the world then adding ice zombies as well as inscrutable Fair Folk. Then there's epic fantasy which is a large sweeping tale of entire worlds with hundreds of cast members viewing the situation from multiple perspectives. The Dragon's Legacy is proper epic fantasy and up there with The Wheel of Time and the Witcher Saga. It has its flaws but those who like big alternate universes, especially the Essos sections of A Song of Ice and Fire, will love this.

    The premise, very roughly, that there's a Middle Eastern and Chinese-themed set of cultures next to one another. It is a world of dragons, demons, talking lions, and dream-based magic. The world is dying because of past events and less children are born every year. A young nomad woman discovers she is the daughter of the Emperor and she may inherit as his only child who can channel sorcery. Her mother finds herself still desired by her former husband despite the fact she ran away with his child. A half-demon journeys to a rival empire to claim his destiny as one of their new soldiers. Also, about a dozen other interesting subplots and counter-plots.

    One benefit of this book is that it subverts the constant stream of Medieval European fantasy which has dominated the genre since, well, forever. Much insight is given into the local cultures which are similar but not identical to their historical inspirations. Really, the Ja'Akari bear as much of a debt to Frank Herbert's Fremen and Robert Jordan's Aiel. However, that's not an insult since those are great characters and a far less used piece of classic fantasy than elves or dwarves. Also, for whatever reason, despite how awesome wuxia and Imperial China is, we've never had anything but a slight impression by them in Western fantasy.

    The book is a slow burn it should be noted with no Ringwraiths moving to smash down the gates of the Shire or Trollocs attacking the home village. Instead, Deborah Wolf takes her time setting up the world and all of the characters' roles in it. Life is hard and painful in the dying world with threats coming from every direction, not the least being a dragon which very might be readying to wake up and destroy the world. Still, for the most part this is a book driven by characterization and cultural expectations than wizards blasting each other. Thankfully, the book isn't a doorstopper either with just 320 pages. Much is set up for future installments of the series and I'm alright with waiting as the groundwork is well paved. Still, don't go into this expecting the Battle of Helm's Deep.

    Deborah Wolf was, according to her author bio, raised on wildlife refuges and this actually fits into a quality of the book which I noticed differs it from other stories of its kind. There is a lot of animal discussion in this book. We get the use of animals in various cultures, their constant presence (both intelligent and otherwise), and even their perspectives on events. I like this detail of the universe as its too often overlooked in establishing worlds. These are a pair of people as dependent on their animals as modern humanity is dependent on its technology. The author is very good at evoking atmosphere and you can really tell what the world is like by her description of sights, smells, and
sounds.

     My favorite character is Sulema and her family. The titular Dragon's Legacy, she is a person who is put in an interesting position as she doesn't have to do much to claim her legacy but is one which will potentially destroy everything she considers herself to be. How much is one willing to change about oneself to be a monarch? How much good can one do with such a sacrifice? How much of a sacrifice is it, really, to wield that kind of privilege? These are questions which are often posed in the abstract but rarely lived in epic fantasy. Everyone has their own take on the subject in the story and it benefits from a deep examination.

    In terms of content, I'd say this book doesn't come anywhere close to grimdark as it's actually quite light on evil. The world is miserable because of the natural disaster and spiritual as well as physical famine afflicting things but everyone seems fairly egalitarian. Also, they're mostly pulling together to try and save everyone else. For a world rooted in folklore about tyrants and evil sorcerers, just about everyone seems to be mostly decent person. It's just they might have to kill one another.

    Do I recommend the book? Yes, I do. I could give suggestions as to what I would have done instead but then the book would be mine instead of its author. It's a book with a strong voice and while some fans may not find it their cup of tea, I think it's an overall extremely good work of fantasy and not derivative of anyone. It takes lesser used elements of fantasy and weaves in something that feels like a modern Arabian Nights. I would have appreciated a bit more action and surprise but the book is great on its own.

9/10

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