Monday, April 08, 2013

Book Review: Shadow of the Dragon Duology

The Shadow of the Dragon by Kate O'Hearn is a YA duology recently sent to my sons by a friend. In not atypical fashion, I ended up reading them before anyone else in the family, and since I've been thinking about them a great deal since I read them, I thought I'd write a review and put some of those thoughts down.

I have two initial reactions to this pair of books. Firstly, they're a fast and reasonably fun read, and I'm quite sure my sons will like them. Secondly, only rarely have I read a pair of books that have so made my editor's reflexes itch. I badly want to enter the books on my computer and try to fix them. Which given that I'm acutely aware of my lack of experience and expertise as an editor (and particularly as an editor of books), says something. For a story to make me itch so badly to get my hands on it means that the problems are egregious enough to override my self-doubt.

(I'm not going to particularly try to avoid spoilers, so be wary if you hate such things.) The books are a fairly standard YA adventure plot. A pair of sisters, 12-year-old Kira and 8-year-old Elspeth are raised in a kingdom that takes sexism to new and inspired heights. Girls may not be taught to read or write. They must be engaged before age 12 and married before age 13. They may not behave or dress in any way like boys. They may not approach the royal castle or the king. And they absolutely must never have anything to do with dragons. A violation of any of these rules is punishable by death. Dealing with dragons is punished with slow torture before the execution.

If you guessed that Kira and Elspeth will end up dressing like boys, flying on dragons, and toppling the oppressive king, congratulations! You have grasped the essence of most YA adventure stories.

Oddly enough, I don't particularly object to the fact that I could guess the ending of the series with a high degree of accuracy before we got past chapter one. With a lot of adventure books, and especially YA ones, the novelty of the story is almost entirely in the details of the journey, not with where you're going. And it's exactly in those details that SotD makes me itch.

A big component of that itching is timing. By the time Kira and Elspeth are born, the girl-specific laws (called the First Laws) have been in place for generations. It beggars belief that Kira, whose mother and grandmother and great-grandmother were all married off in arranged marriages by age 12, who has been raised by loyal and dutiful parents, who would never dream of violating the laws and endangering their daughters, Kira, who has known since the time she could talk that this is coming, would stomp around arguing with her parents because they've found a nice boy for her to marry, saying that she doesn't wish to marry at all, and expounding on her desire to be a dragon knight. She might have those thoughts, or even be somewhat rebellious, but she's being outright stupid in a really unbelievable way. The timing is off - nothing has yet happened in Kira's life that would push her into such a huge rebellion against the parents she clearly loves. Once her family is dragged off, parents and brother conscripted for the King's war, and her middle sister sent to prison for being an unmarried girl, and Kira and Elspeth are hunted fugitives? Yeah, once that's happened, I can believe almost anything Kira might do, but before that? There's just no reason for Kira's outright rebellion. It seems to exist purely as a chance to drop in the explanation of First Law and perhaps to let the book start in an exciting moment that gives Kira an excuse to stomp out of the house and thereby miss the knights coming to burn down her house and drag off her and her family.

(Internal musing - I would probably have had Kira off by herself daydreaming about the Rogue (the feral dragon near her home), lamenting internally the unjust laws that meant she could never work with dragons herself, or even plotting how perhaps she could approach the Rogue 'by accident', and then coming home to the arrival of the king's knights, though I'm sure there are other ways this could be dealt with as well.)

I also object to idiot plots - no not plots that are stupid, but rather plots that require the characters to be idiots for them to work. The whole situation of SotD is kicked off with a king who is highly fortunate to have survived his own idiocy at all. A wizard comes forth with a prophecy of a young girl with a dragon who will topple the monarchy, and the king responds immediately with laws guaranteed to piss off not only every young girl in the country, but every relative near or distant that cares about them at all. By rights, the king who instituted First Law should have been facing a rebellion or repeated assassination attempts pretty much immediately, not had the whole country go meekly along for several hundred years. He doesn't make any attempt to justify them (only the king and the wizard know about the prophecy), or to put them in place gradually. He just decrees, and WHAM! suddenly women are effectively chattel without so much as a whimper.

My last large objection is to the major Deus ex Machina character, in the form of a dyslexic wizard, Paradon. I liked the concept - he can't read, and much like the words on the paper, his spells end up jumbled, with rather random results. This could be comic, tragic, both, a major complicating factor, or nearly anything within the book. Instead, all the things that go wrong, pretty much end up driving the plot exactly where it needs to go in a fashion that gets really annoying. Everything was just a little to convenient - not necessarily for the characters, but rather for the author - and the feel of the book suffered for it. Even the attempt at a major plot twist at the end couldn't shake that feeling that with Paradon on hand, it was all going to go just so, somehow. It felt like an adventure novel written by a devout Calvinist - it's all predestined, and we're just hanging around waiting for the inevitable to unfold.

As you might guess by this point, I really can't recommend the books. I don't hate them, and as previously noted, I suspect the kids will enjoy them, but there are just too many issues for a more experienced reader to overlook.

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