King's Dragon

Damn, I'm really late to this party. It's not the first time and it probably won't be the last, but I doubt I've ever been this late before. At least I hope not! I felt bad being fourteen years late reviewing Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns, and deservedly so. And yet, Kate Elliott's King's Dragon was published way back in 1997, twenty-five years ago.

My excuse? I have none. Other than having too many books to read, of course. The funny thing is that I have a full set of the Crown of Stars series, for I bought each installment as they came out. King's Dragon was a Nebula award finalist and I remember buying it when the paperback edition was released. Robert Jordan had already burned me as far as long series are concerned, so I elected to wait till a few more volumes were written before jumping into that series. You'll recall that I did the same with George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (after GRRM told me it would be a trilogy). 

Back in the 90s and the early 2000s, I bought a slew of Daw titles. Starting with Tad Williams, Melanie Rawn, and C. S. Friedman, followed by Kate Elliott, Michelle West, Jennifer Roberson, Mickey Zucker Reichert, and many more. The books were big, sported distinctive SFF covers, and they were good. When I created Pat's Fantasy Hotlist back in 2005, I never would have thought that I'd still be blogging nearly two decades later. And if you'd told me that I would receive hundreds of review copies over the years, I would have said you're crazy. Still, with the emergence of new quality authors like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Naomi Novik, Patrick Rothfuss, R. Scott Bakker, and so many others; and with the discovery of established talents such as Jacqueline Carey and Steven Erikson; and with new releases from favorites such as Robin Hobb, George R. R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman, it's no wonder that every week or so my books-to-read pile grew and grew and grew. So much so that I'm acutely aware that I won't likely manage to read all the novels I have before leaving this world. First World problem, I know.

Long story short, my backlog's just getting bigger every week. And about all those books and series I've owned since before the creation of the Hotlist, it often feels as though they just keep getting pushed back to the end of the line. Moving out of my loft in January 2011 meant that I could no longer have all of my books with me. Which means that I have hundreds of them in storage in various locations. Truth be told, I wasn't supposed to read Kate Elliott's King's Dragon. I've been looking for Michelle West's The Broken Crown ever since it was announced that PRH had forced Daw to drop her. But try as I might, I couldn't find any of my West books. Rummaging through boxes in my locker allowed me to get my hands on my Elliott books, however. Feeling that the universe was somehow speaking to me, I decided that it was high time to finally give Crown of Stars a shot!

Not surprisngly, I feel quite stupid for waiting this long, for King's Dragon is a quality read and the opening chapter for bigger and better things to come. As for West, no worries, for I ordered a copy of The Broken Crown and will get to it shortly. At least that's the plan. . .

But it's going to be difficult not to read Prince of Dogs and the subsequent installments in the near future. Again, First World problem.

Here's the blurb:

Set in an alternate Europe where bloody conflicts rage, the first book of the Crown of Stars epic fantasy series chronicles a world-shaking conflict for the survival of humanity

It begins with civil war….

For though King Henry still holds the crown of Wendar, his reign has long been contested by his sister Sabella. There are many eager to flock to her banner, and there are ways to make even the most unwilling lord into a weapon pointed at the heart of Henry’s realm.

Torn by internal strife, Wendar also faces deadly raids from the north by an inhuman race, the Eika. And now terrifying portents are being seen; old ruins restored to life under the light of the full moon and peopled by the long-vanished Lost Ones; dark spirits walking the land in broad daylight. And suddenly two innocents are about to be thrust into the middle of the conflict.

Liath, who has spent her early years fleeing from unknown enemies, is a young woman with the power to change the course of history if she can only learn to master her fear and seize what is rightfully hers.

While Alain, a young man who may find his future in a vision granted by the Lady of Battles, must first unravel the mystery of who he is—whether the bastard son of a noble father, the half-breed child of an elfin lord, the unwanted get of a whore, or the heir to a proud and ancient lineage. For only when he discovers the truth can he accept the destiny for which he was born.

Liath and Alain, each trapped in a personal struggle for survival, both helplessly being drawn into a far greater battle, a war in which sorcery not swords will determine the final outcome, and the land itself may be irrevocably reshaped by the forces unleashed….

If you could define Kate Elliott's worldbuilding with just one word, it would have to be "meticulous". With an uncanny eye for detail, her portrayal of this medieval European analog occasionally makes you feel as though you're reading a historical novel. In that respect, King's Dragon can be reminiscent of some of Guy Gavriel Kay's titles. Based on true cultures and the history of the early Middle Ages, the book is nevertheless spiced up with way more fantasy elements than any of Kay novels. Such a conscientious depiction of the historical period will please fans of worldbuilding. Personally, I loved it. But there's no denying that it often gets in the way of the plot and also slows the pace throughout the book. Hence, your mileage will vary in that regard.

Another element that sets Crown of Stars apart from most epic fantasy series out there, at least as far as this first volume is concerned, is the presence of religion and the major role it plays in every single aspect of this tale. Elliott's gender-egalitarian rebranding of the Roman Catholic Church affects people from all walks of life, from king to peasant. Not since Katherine Kurtz's Deryni saga has any SFF author tried to make religion such an all-encompassing facet of every day life in their fantasy universe. It is particularly well-done in King's Dragon, though I can understand that many a reader found that offputting. As I mentioned, religion affects everything. Whether or not Elliott's portrayal of the Church can be as impressive as Kurtz's remains to be seen, but I must say that I have high hopes for the volumes to come. Given that the use of sorcery has been formally accepted at a past religious council, although only if under the Church's supervision, here's to hoping that we will get POVs from members of the clergy to explore that aspect in future installments. I felt that not including the perspectives of characters such as Frater Agius or Biscop Antonia turned out to be a missed opportunity to delve into whether or not the use of magic is a form of heresy. The notion is obviously not clear-cut.

Although good overall, the characterization can at times be uneven. In true 90s fashion, we get two young, naive, and somewhat vulnerable main protagonists through whose eyes the bulk of the story will unfold. Alain, a compassionate young man destined to become a monk but who yearns to be a warrior. And Liath, a young girl who has spent years running away from a past she knows little about with her father and who's been taught forbidden knowledge that she must keep secret if she wants to stay alive. There seems to be a good balance between the two perspectives, although I found Liath's story to be the more compelling of the two. Especially early on. Though traumatic and often difficult to read, Liath's plotline is more fascinating. On the other hand, it takes a long time for Alain's importance to become evident and for him to come into his own, so to speak. It all comes together towards the end, but some sequences featuring Alain can be a bit boring until you reach about the halfway point of the novel. The third POV in importance is that of Rosvita, a female cleric and advisor to King Henry. It's through her perspective that the reader learns about the history and the politics of the kingdoms of Wendar and Varre. Hanna, Liath's friend, becomes a POV character almost by default, for we need to know what happens when the two are separated. We also get the point of view of Prince Sanglant, King Henry's child by one of the Aoi (name by which the elves are known) and leader of the Dragons, the king's militia, yet those scenes are few and far between. King's Dragon is by no means a slim novel and it already features a number of POVs, but I feel that the tale would have benefited from the perspectives of people such as Wolfhere, Frater Hugh, and/or other clergyman/women.

The political intrigue which is the backdrop of this tale is rather simplistic. Which could be detrimental to the overall storyarc if it doesn't improve in the sequels. Then again, at face value the political intrigue of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones appeared a bit simple early on and we all know how that turned out. Time will tell if Kate Elliott can be as good as Katherine Kurtz and GRRM in that regard.

Given the size of the novel (King's Dragon weighs in at 625 pages) and the fact that it's an introduction to a much bigger and more ambitious tale, it's no surprise that it suffers from some pacing issues. All of them found in the first two-thirds of the book, as Elliott lays the groundwork for this opening chapter and the rest of the series. And even though the rhythm can drag in some portions, you always get the feeling that, even if it doesn't make sense now, those scenes will have their importance in the greater scheme of things. The endgame might not be as rousing as expected (those expecting great battle scenes à la Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, and Steven Erikson might be disappointed), yet the author brings this one to a satisfying conclusion. Not a standalone by any stretch of the imagination, this first installment is still more self-contained than most of its epic fantasy counterparts.

Some argue that Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars is one of the most underrated fantasy series on the market. Time will tell if that is indeed true. But there's no denying that King's Dragon shows a lot of promise. I'm eager to see if what comes next will live up to that potential.

One thing's for sure. If you are looking for a big, multilayered fantasy novel featuring intricate worldbuilding and interesting characters, then King's Dragon is definitely for you!

The final verdict: 7.75/10

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