‘Training montage’ and the ‘underdog sports team’ are not my favorite tropes, but this story is so well told I was 100% won over. The narrative is varied and nuanced enough that character interaction and plot are interwoven skillfully into sparring matches and battles and elements that typically only feature raw action. In some ways this aspect of the novel is similar to Orson Scott Card’s “Enders’ Game”, only with a higher focus on the fighting itself. The Rage of Dragons was a stellar book from a debut author and I am champing at the bit to get my hands on book two. Evan Winter is one to watch.
Now, I should mention that things did not start off on the right foot for me. Which may seem like a weird follow up to ‘OMG OMG read this fire!’ But after about 75 pages I literally put this book back on the shelf, planning not to finish it. Something just didn’t quite click for me. I can think of a few reasons, but primarily the book began with a lengthy action-packed prologue. I have never been a fan of books that start out with big fight scenes. I just don’t get engaged with high word count battles before I know any of the characters or background. Chapter one continues in a similar vein, diving right into many pages of action. So, after I made it through that without feeling connected to Tau or his story, I was ready to give up. But, after selecting a new book from my shelf before bed, I picked up my phone to surf around before starting it, and I happened across a friend’s raving tweet about the Rage of Dragons. So, I figured I must be the problem in the equation, and decided to give it one more go.
Man, what a colossal blunder it would have been to abandon this novel. Almost as soon as I picked it back up, my enjoyment level soared. At first, Tau’s character felt pretty generic to me, but once his motivations were established and his steely resolve surfaced, I was rapt. The Rage of Dragons is very well plotted and moves at an exciting pace. Winter does an excellent job of setting up the next goal and establishing a sense of progress toward it. There were some great twists along the way too. The novel does a good job of escalating, and just when you think you know what will happen, an entirely new dimension is added to the stakes. It all culminates in a very satisfying conclusion that left me eager for the release of the next book.
The story is primarily told through Tau’s 3rd person limited perspective, with a couple of exceptions. I was momentarily disoriented by the switch, since such a small percentage of the book is not from Tau’s point of view. I’m not quite sure if this was done to convey something Tau couldn’t see or to give a little more variety in tone or what. It felt like a little bit of a stumble, as they tended to have a front-heavy passage of exposition to help with the adjustment, but they were still interesting and well-written, so this is really just a quibble.
The world building definitely breaks the cookie cutter mold of medieval Europe, drawing inspiration instead from African culture. Some of the terms like Ihagu, Ihashe, Indlovu, Ingonyama, Inkokele, were at first a little difficult for my tin ear to differentiate, but eventually all became clear. The world’s mythology has a little bit of mystery that is revealed throughout the novel and while some of it still felt a little undeveloped, the divinities and associated religion in particular, most of it was just straight up cool. There is an interconnectedness in the mythology and the caste system that fuels the narrative tensions and teases the plot in new and unexpected directions. Plus Isihogo, the underworld, is intertwined in the magic and Tau’s journey in a totally unique and satisfying way. Trust me, I simply cannot imagine a fantasy afficionado not falling in love with that particular aspect of the story. People who’ve read it know what I’m talking about.
Tau is motivated by the oppression he and his family suffer at the hands of his society’s elite. There is a well-developed social justice theme that is central to both Tau’s character and his story as a whole. He is treated as a “Lesser” and told he has a subservient role in society, but Tau answers that with a resounding ‘hell no!’ He is so single-minded that you find yourself not only rooting for him, but inspired by him. He really takes to heart the mantra that greatness belongs to whoever puts in the work, which is awesome. Tau literally motivated me to stop procrastinating a difficult task in real life. Eventually, there comes a moment or two when his laser focus on revenge teeters on the brink of becoming monotonous. Still, I think Winter did a good job of juggling the total commitment Tau shows to his vengeance with the kind of emotional variety it takes to portray a compelling character.
All-in-all, I really enjoyed this book. The setting is unique and the details have the kind of synergy that makes a world live off the page. Tau is hardcore, I would follow him into battle. And most of all, this book has a sense of progress that keeps the pages turning. More please!