Saturday, 20 April 2013

Review: Draykon

Draykon by Charlotte E. English

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Firstly, this is long. The paperback edition, according to the Amazon page, is 402 pages, much longer than most novels I read these days. It's not just your standard epic fantasy doorstop, though, nor does it get bogged down in pages of description. In fact, I could have done with a little more description from time to time.

Let's take language first. It's mostly very literate, with odd exceptions. I struck two dangling participles very early on: "Wrought from silver, her favourite metal, she had lightly engraved it..." (which, taken literally, says that she was wrought from silver), and "Shy even then, the bustling market had unnerved her". There's also an instance where something belonging to a couple with the surname Wrobsley is described as "the Wrobsley's" instead of, as it should be, "the Wrobsleys'". There are several cases where the author uses "may" when the rest of the sentence is in the past tense and the word should be "might". The nonexistent word "alright" turns up once, and there are about five cases where a question is missing its question mark. There are passive constructions like "she was given a room", "she was waited upon", and the owners of an inn are referred to as its "patrons", which usually means customers. I won't carp at "not unjustified", though it's often frowned upon as poor usage.

That sounds like a lot, but really, over 402 pages, it isn't. For the most part, the language is smooth and competent. Three and a half stars.

The characters are memorable enough that the invented fantasy names mostly don't become an impediment to remembering who is who. They're not cliches, they have personal stakes in the outcomes, and they take action towards clear goals. I did have a bit of a problem with Llandry, one of the two viewpoint characters. She is a very anxious young woman who nevertheless is always leaving safety and getting herself in trouble, with bad results, often to other people as well as herself. She does this over and over again. I very much do not like characters like this. On the other hand, the other viewpoint character, Eva, is a strong, capable woman, though her lack of emotion in most circumstances and apparent cluelessness about relationships makes her read a little like a gender-swapped man. I prefer strong female characters to be emotionally intelligent as well as determined and competent. I also didn't see much of an arc in the characters. On the inside, at least, they're much the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. Overall, three stars for characters.

As far as plot goes, as you'd expect in such a long book, there's quite a bit of it. It's a mystery, not a quest, which is nice to see in an epic fantasy. The characters, particularly Eva, make steady progress in solving the mystery (important if a plot is to hold my attention), and there's a good balance of tidying up the events of the first book with setting up more questions for the second. It's competently done, and the two geographically-separated strands weave together and cross frequently enough that you don't feel you're reading two separate stories. At least three and a half stars for plot, getting close to four.

Now, setting. I had some issues with the setting.

I need to mention something about the world in order to give background. There are three connected levels, known as the Lowers, the Middles and the Uppers. The Lowers are perpetually moonlit night, the Uppers perpetually sunlit day. Parts of the Middles have been magically set up to connect to one or the other by either cloaking them in permanent night or giving them permanent day, so that animals and plants from the Lowers or Uppers respectively can thrive.

Leaving aside the biological unlikeliness, there are some consistency problems in how these lands are described. After a group of people is said to have "worked past moonset and well beyond", one of their members returns to her home, and it's "nearly moonset". Later, "under the deep cover of Orstwych’s Cloaked hours" (i.e. when the moon is not up), the moonlight shines off buildings. One of the permanent-day lands is described as experiencing sunrise and sunset, and later a native of that land is thrilled to be in another land (outside the magical cloaks) "where the sun rose and set". The glossary notes at the back make it clear that the sun does rise and set in the daylands, so this seems odd.

I was never convinced that this elaborate setup was really necessary (or believable). Then there are the animals and plants themselves. I can see the reason for having new names for the ones that are not like anything in our world, though it does make the book harder to follow, but if you have a large, intelligent, scaly, winged being that breathes fire, why call it a "draykon" rather than a dragon? Perhaps there's some reason, but it's not visible in this first book, and it seems like a difference that makes no difference.

The setting reminds me a little of some of the setups you see in some Dungeons and Dragons material, which seem to be designed on the basis of coolness rather than practicality. The problem is not only that they're impractical, but that they end up not being treated fully consistently with all the implications worked out, and that they get in the way of the plot more than they generate it. I'm not really a fan. Three stars.

Overall, this is a three-star book for me. It's a high three stars, and with some language fixes, more character change and the logistical inconsistencies fixed up, it would edge up to four, even though I don't love the setting.

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