Saturday, June 07, 2008

BOOKS: Too Dragon Much!

My reading over the last while has been nothing but dragons, dragons and more dragons. First, I took in the three books of the Jennifer Scales series by husband and wife team of Mary Janice Davidson and Anthony Alongi. Then, I jumped right into the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. That brought the total number of books read to seven, and it might be a while before I take in an eighth dragon-starring book.

The whole adventure started with an afternoon off and nothing immediately appealing on top of the reading pile. I wanted something quick, sort of the literary equivalent of an ice cream cone. I had read some of Davidson's ditzy vampire books and had relatively enjoyed them. Davidson is a wordsmith with a bent for humour. So, I read Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace. Turned out, the book was a young adult novel and fairly entertaining. Parts of the ending did come from left field, but it was a decent run. Enough for me to decide to finish out the trilogy (a hook was left to go past the opening three books, so I might be wrong terming it a trilogy). Jennifer Scales and the Messenger of Light and The Silver Moon Elm: A Jennifer Scales Novel were both equally quick and absorbing reads with many of the same flaws and charms.

Actually, I'm a little bit wrong about referring to dragons in the series. The dragons are actually were-dragons. Humans that change back and forth into dragon form, usually on the crescent of the new moon. Okay. They have enemies, the were-spiders and the beaststalkers that hunt them both. Naturally, all of this happens under the nose of we ignorant humans. Jennifer, the heroine of the series, turns out to have relatives on all three sides of this fight. She's a bit special and attracts all kinds of attention. Thrills ensue, with a very light touch in the humour department. I'm guessing Alongi plotted most of the series, with Davidson writing a lot of dialog for the teen-age girl view point characters. It's a good idea. Wish I'd thought of that (hope that sounds as sarcastic as I wanted. It was originally MY plan with the novel I am writing).

At any rate, there are a few deus ex machina moments. A lot of "spirits of ancestors" stuff crops up, which I rarely enjoy and don't here. But all in all, it was a worthwhile series to read. Would NOT be afraid to give this to tweener Angela at all. And the pace of action moves along enough for an old fogey like me to enjoy it, even if I wasn't in the middle of an attempt to write in the age group myself.

Moving from the light fantasy to the heavier workload of Novik's series, featuring an honest-to-goodness, full-time dragon named Temeraire. Temeraire's a dragon in the British Air Services during the Napoleonic Wars era. He's partnered up with ex-Navy captain Will Laurence, much against Laurence's will. But before too long, the two are fast friends and off to have adventures all over the globe, from England to France, Africa to China, and all the way back to England from China through central Asia and lots of Europe.

And all of the prose is written in very Dickensian English. The language and the character sensibilities are very Victorian. Laurence spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about dignity and honour. A LOT! Every confrontation between individuals is analyzed for his ability to hold his temper or not offend the other party. THAT part became quite wearing.

On the other hand, Temeraire brings a guileless sense of wonder to the book and his words (Did I not mention, he talks, as do all the dragons?) and actions are the flavouring to make the books worth reading. The series starts off with His Majesty's Dragon and introduces the conceit of a France-England conflict driven by Napoleon and complicated by the presence of dragons as everyday facts of life. France has more, and more powerful, dragons, but the plucky Brits have the might of right on their side. And a little luck. A dragon egg bound for France from the court of Imperial China, gets seized by Laurence and his mates, aboard a British Navy ship. A hatching dragon basically latches on to the first human it sees and partners up. Working with the dragons is not considered a good career move, especially for a captain moving up the roles of the royal Navy. But it wouldn't be a book without some hardship and Temeraire and Laurence end up together for at least the next four books.

A word of warning. The reason I read a limited list of fantasy books is I hate not knowing the rules. I remember one famous SF short where there is a race between a man desperately trying to stay ahead of a gang of primitives, all brandishing swords, knives and clubs. He's trying to get to an interstellar gate and get away. All are on horses. The prose describes in breathless detail the straining of horse sinews to keep the lead over the savages trailing behind. Tricks and turns were used to keep a steadily diminishing lead intact. Just as success seems at hand, he leaps off his horse and starts moving the last few feet towards the safety of the gate, already on and waiting to whisk him away, Then, one of the primitives pulls out a gun (or it might have even been a raygun), and shoots him dead. WHAT!!!!!! That's what I hate about fantasy. Too often they can pull something out of their back pocket and totally invalidate what you have just read, destroying the emotional integrity of reading along with the character.

Sad to say, His Majesty's Dragon suffers from that. I hate the way Temeraire saves the day in the last battle of the book. Not that it is an illogical solution. It's just that it comes from completely left field. No setup. At this point, I had two choices. Ignore the next three books on the reading pile, or give Novik a chance to fix the bad impression. Even though the book had been a bit of a chore to read through because of the prose style, I'd quite enjoyed the maturing of young Temeraire. And I found the dragon-affected changes to the war of the times to be solid and well thought out.

I devoured Throne of Jade, Black Powder War and Empire of Ivory in short order. In almost each case, the books took effort to read, but a well-rewarded effort. Oddly enough, the one aspect of the books that appealed most was the fact that Laurence didn't succeed with super-human consistency. Frankly, the Laurence and company tended to lose more than they won. Certainly, being a crewman with Temeraire wasn't exactly a series-long guarantee against dying. There's plenty of death in the books, along with plenty of wonder.

The fourth book ended with Laurence and Temeraire in a bit of a pickle. A pickle that made a good stopping off point, if you just assume it followed through to its indicated ending. I COULD stop there, and probably will for a year or two. I will have to ignore Victory of Eagles, due to be published next month, but Empire of Ivory was so pessimistic, that I will probably be able to put it off for awhile. Given the book-a-year pace Novik seems capable of, it will mean a new trilogy of stories by the time I'm ready to re-enter Temeraire's world.

No sense draggin' this out any longer. I'm just too tired of dragons to continue.

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