I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
The first time I heard about The Rage of Dragons, through a fellow blogger’s review, I was beyond intrigued when learning that the book takes a different approach to the usual fantasy themes by basing the story on an African-like background, which is indeed new and refreshing in the genre. Besides, how could I resist a tale of vengeance? Since my long-ago encounter with The Count of Montecristo I always found revenge stories to be quite compelling, so there was no doubt that this would be an intriguing read.
At the start of the story we meet the Omehi people, refugees in search of a place to settle in and re-build their society: they just landed in a promising location, but the natives’ fierce resistance forces them into a bitter conflict that is still ongoing some two hundred years later, when we encounter the novel’s main character, Tau. In a society geared for endless war, everyone must be trained for combat, but Tau is not very sanguine about that and his goal is to finish his mandatory warrior training and then injure himself in a way that will allow him to still be a productive member of society in a non-belligerent role.
Fate, however, brings such an upheaval to Tau’s life that it sends him on a very different path, one that will turn him into the fierce warrior he never meant to be, so he can carry out his vengeance against those who wronged him. And as Tau pursues that aim, the conflict with the Xideen keeps escalating and the future for the Omehi looks increasingly bleaker…
The Rage of Dragons started out in a very promising way for me, with its original approach and setting, but ultimately it failed to engage me fully, which saddened me quite a bit since I had hoped for more – or maybe set those expectations too high. For example, the background is a potentially fascinating one: the novel is marketed as an African-inspired story and there is indeed an intriguing feeling in the descriptions of the scorched, unforgiving land settled by the Omehi, of the relentless sun beating down on people and their activities. The language is permeated by terms calling out to the African culture, and even though they sometimes overwhelm the readers, asking them for an effort of memory to place them in the right context, they enhance the difference from the more traditional fantasy storytelling. Still, I could not avoid the sensation that those elements of originality were only skin deep, because none of them helped in making me perceive the depth and complexity of such a different culture.
From the opening we learn that Omehi society is divided into two castes, nobles and commoners, assigned by matrilineal descent, and that women hold the highest powers: the ruler is a Queen and the magic wielders are women, which would lay the ground for a strong female presence throughout the story, and yet the narrative evidence is contradictory. As far as the caste system is concerned, for example, we only know it’s there and that the nobles often misuse their influence for personal gain, but there is nothing more here aside from the perception of the inherent injustice of this social structure. Female figures, what few there are, hardly impact the storyline, giving me the unwelcome sensation that their apparent agency in Omehi culture is more a token one than the real thing.
Still, these misgivings would be minor ones, and easily ascribed to the “growing pains” of a debut work, if it were not for what turned out to be my major contention with The Rage of Dragons, which was its main focus – Tau. It was difficult, not to say impossible, to find a connection with the character: at first he comes across as a variation on the theme of the reluctant hero: he has no heart for fighting, which in a military culture is a huge problem indeed (those who are unwilling to fight are relegated to the role of ‘drudge’, little more than slaves forced to serve the community in the more menial and demanding tasks), while his plan for a self-inflicted injury, which would free him from military service while maintaining his status and freedom, sounds mildly cowardly and did little to endear him to me. Then tragedy strikes and Tau spins in the very opposite direction, training hard and succeeding quite shortly in becoming a fearsome warrior, which is somewhat difficult to believe given his initial lack of interest for warfare – even taking into account the powerful drive offered by his thirst for revenge, it’s a change I struggled to accept.
That desire for revenge (an element, as I said, that can powerfully drive any story) leads Tau to a single-mindedness that further alienated him from me, because it was not so much a tight focus on a goal but rather a tunnel vision to the exclusion of all else, be it the bonding with his comrades or the consequences of rash choices – and Tau is quite prone to the latter, to the point that I often wondered if he was stupidly foolish rather than powerfully driven. Moreover, the emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, which takes a considerable space in the overall narrative, turned out to be too much – at least for my tastes – and those descriptions, no matter their cinematic detail that would work very well on screen, felt boring and repetitive after the umpteenth flashing of bronze swords.
When all is said and done, I would not label The Rage of Dragons as a bad book, because it’s not, but in the end it felt to me as an unfulfilled promise, a story with a great potential that remained mostly untapped, and that’s the main reason for my overall disappointment. Which does not mean that this story could not get better along the way…