What an unexpected pleasure. This book was completely – and I mean completely – different from what I expected. It’s not really steampunk despite that awesome dragon on the cover, it’s not quite epic fantasy, it’s not too heroic, and there’s very little action altogether. However, it turned out to be a brilliant fantasy of manners, a beautiful romance, and a very original take on dragons.
by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett
Published by: Spectra, 2008
ebook: 448 pages
Series: Metal Dragons #1
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: That morning, I awaited my arrest in Our Lady of a Thousand Fans.
Thanks to its elite Dragon Corps, the capital city of Volstov has all but won the hundred years’ war with its neighboring enemy, the Ke-Han. The renegade airmen who fly the corps’s mechanical, magic-fueled dragons are Volstov’s greatest weapon. But now one of its members is at the center of a scandal that may turn the tide of victory. To counter the threat, four ill-assorted heroes must converge to save their kingdom: an exiled magician, a naive country boy, a young student – and the unpredictable ace who flies the city’s fiercest dragon, Havemercy. But on the eve of battle, these courageous men will face something that could make the most formidable of warriors hesitate, the most powerful of magicians weak, and the most unlikely of men allies in their quest to rise against it.
Gorgeous as it may be, the clockwork dragon on the cover is severly misleading. This story may feature dragons, but they are very much in the background. Instead, the plot revolves around the fate of four viewpoint characters. The exiled magician Royston and the country boy he meets there, a boy named Hal, were my first favorite characters. The way Hal, a tutor to Royston’s nephews and niece, hungers for knowledge and yearns for Royston’s stories from the bustling city of Volstov was more fascinating than any action scene could have been. Our other two viewpoint characters reside in the capital. Thom is a scholar with the unhappy task of rehabilitating the Dragon Corps. The Corps’ most fearsome rider, Rook, has been involved in a rather large scandal and is not deemed fit to mingle with society. Thom more than struggles trying to get some manners into the impulsive Rook. In the beginning, Rook was my least favorite character, I almost loathed him. It goes to show the writers’ talent that by the end, I came to think of him as a dear friend. After a while, I couldn’t even decide which storyline was my favorite. But Rook and Thom surely made for the most exciting bantering and psychological warfare. Each character is multi-layered and so intricate that I didn’t even care about the side characters, most of whom were left rather flat.
The blurb implies epic battles and a raging war. The war exists, although when we enter the story, it is almost over. Epic battles will not be found within these pages. Instead, we get character studies, amazing relationships and a surprisingly wonderful romance. Discovering who these people are was enough for me but if you’re looking for Epic epic, you won’t find it here. The plot is slow-moving but never boring. Every page offers new tidbits about what made the characters who they are today. They are each thrown into new situations without knowing how to handle them.
With magicians and flying clockwork dragons, this book has one foot firmly set in the realms of fantasy. Same as the characters, the world-building takes time to unfold. But the closer I got to the end of the book, the more I realised that the city of Volstov, its politics and its magicians, were quite well fleshed-out and I had no trouble finding my way around this place, understanding the slang and suspending my disbelief. Everything in this book is subtly done (except maybe Rook, but then he is not meant to be subtle). I read along, quite happy to follow these characters around for no better reason than to get to know them better. Towards the end of the book, a sort of mystery comes up that needs urgent solving and brings us some of the action the blurb promises. It wouldn’t even have been necessary but it added a little extra something to an already thrilling book. This is not your avarage fantasy novel. If I had to compare it, I would say it reminds me a little bit of Ellen Kushner’s At Swordspoint. Except this is better.
The one qualm I have about this – and it’s not really a big problem – is that there isn’t a single important female character. The number of women in the entire book can be counted on my hands. A few of them get to say a line or two but women really don’t seem to feature much in this world. That’s okay, not every book has to have strong female characters, but it seemed strange that the only women mentioned were either prostitutes or an important man’s wife. There are two female magicians that I can mention as somewhat redeeming but altogether, this is very much a man’s world.
An original fantasy of manners that didn’t thrill me right at the beginning. But at some point, and I believe it was when Hal first meets Royston, authors Jones and Bennett set their mechanical dragon’s claws into my brain and I was absolutely hooked. It may not be steampunk but it’s sure worth reading.
THE GOOD: Wonderfully layered characters, relationships and character development. A world that is both subtle and intriguing. Plus, a gay romance that will give you butterflies (no matter your sexual orientation).
THE BAD: The beginning is very confusing and takes some pulling through. There’s an abominable lack of women characters!
THE VERDICT: An original fantasy of manners that manages to be epic without shedding gallons of blood on a fictional battlefield. It focuses on characters and their personal growth. Highly recommended.
RATING: 8/10 – Excellent
The Metal Dragons/Havemercy Series:
- Shadow Magic
- Dragon Soul
- Steel Hands