Our story centres around Tau and his journey from half-arsed combat hobbyist to serial slasher. On his way he teams up with a bunch of brothers-in-arms, meets a few demons, has a bath and ultimately becomes a key player in the tussle that threatens his people’s very existence. And it is at this point where I must bemoan the book’s most damning weakness.
Tau is one of the most insufferable main protagonists I have come across in a long time. His motivation, and the driving force behind his entire journey, is revenge, and this alone is often a perfectly fine force. The trouble in this instance is that it utterly consumes him. His motivation overrides his logic, his temperament and his general likeableness. At several points he shows contempt towards his supposed allies and their issues and puts his own goals above those of others in a brazen display of selfishness. You know that something has gone wrong somewhere when you root for one of the villains of the story during their first scrap.
While most of the supporting characters in the book are solid enough, the society within which they exist also caused me some issues. First and foremost, as we discover from the prologue, the founders of the society are actually the invaders encroaching on indigenous land. As a result, my sympathy with the ‘good guys’ of the story is immediately curtailed and doesn’t paint them in a positive light. There is an indication that they were driven to find new lands on which to settle by something called The Cull, but this is never made clear. Additionally, their methods on ensuring cooperation from the dragons is cruel, and sympathy further diminishes.
These are heavy limitations when it came to my enjoyment of the book, but it would be remiss of me to deny that there were several areas where it truly did excel and earn its stripes.
The pacing throughout was immaculate. It is the definition of a page turner, with short, sharp chapters and streamlined prose. Winter doesn’t hold the reader’s hand with endless first-novel exposition; you are expected to hit the ground running straight away and keep up. He cleverly keeps the reader aware of the larger problems at play whilst never deviating from Tau’s journey. There is a natural build-up of experience and knowledge from the fighters in Tau’s Scale (unit) and from Zuri, the key magic user in the story, and so the culmination and climax of the story feels earned. Evan Winter is clearly a writer of considerable skill.
As indicated above, the supporting characters are generally strong, if a little generic at times. You believe the camaraderie between the men in Tau’s Scale. As a collective unit, you do root for them and want them to succeed against the odds, because they each have their own motivation for wanting to excel. It would be easy for them to feel resentment towards Tau as he begins to leave them behind, but there is none of that present. They are, quite simply, good people.
There are elements of the greater world hinted at. There are facets of the magic system explored. Taken alone within this book these aspects are a little sparse throughout, and the magic is a little clunky and vague, but I do think that the foundations have been laid and I do think Winter has the skill to fully realise these.
But I am concerned that the damage has already been done in terms of my continuation with the series. You only ever get one shot at a first impression, and Tau has, unfortunately, botched his attempt. I can appreciate why ‘The Rage of Dragons’ has left such an impression on so many people and I will be keeping an eye on the initial buzz when ‘The Fires of Vengeance’ rocks up.
Hopefully Tau will have calmed down a bit by then. . .