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Monday, April 20, 2020

The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (Reviewed by David Stewart)



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Order the Rage of Dragons here

Few books in the past year have built up a level of hype as that surrounding The Rage of Dragons. There was a solid two month period where I rarely saw a day go by without hearing about Evan Winter's debut fantasy novel. I'll admit I slept on it because I wanted the trade paperback version, and now that I've read it, with all the hype behind us, I'm happy to report that it lives up to it. This is one of the best debuts I've read, but I am a little worried for its strength because the inevitable sequel has much to live up to.

Strengths


There is much to love about The Rage of Dragons. Winter sets his story in an invaded world. The Omehi people are introduced as conquerors, forcing their way into a foreign land having fled their own for reasons that are not detailed in this novel but promise to feature in subsequent books. This is a twist - we generally don't root for the invaders. Winter make it work by telling the entire book from the viewpoint of an Omehi youth named Tau. Tau exists in this world many hundreds of years after the invasion. This land is the only one he knows, and he can not be blamed for despising the barbarians who make war on his people year after year - even if history shows him that it was the Omehi who brought it.

Tau's growth throughout the novel is possibly the strongest aspect of the entire book, even if it does create problems down the line. Tau starts out as a young man with some apparent combat ability, but he is unremarkable in almost every way. He is small, not particularly good-looking, and not born to an important caste in a society where status means everything - he is an everyman. Circumstances force him out of this inheritance early in the book, and it does not take long for him to embark on a journey of revenge. Like Arya Stark, Tau has a list, and the only way for him to legally check boxes off of that list is to train for a spot in the military.

Much of the book takes place in an academy, and another of the strengths of Rage is the camaraderie built up between Tau and his friends.  Tau is an outsider, and remains so for nearly the entire novel, but he forms bonds that even his rage and pinpoint focus can not keep out. One thing that I think Winter does particularly well with this academy fantasy is to spread his eggs. Tau is good at one thing - fighting. He is no strategist, nor particularly good at rallying morale (he manages this through sheer force at some point, but it's clear that he finds it uncomfortable). Winter spreads the talents needed to form a competent team throughout the squad, and it makes it more believable. Other novels of this ilk can often run into the trap of creating one superhero with a team of underlings, and while Tau is certainly the superhero of the novel, he has obvious weaknesses.

Weaknesses


The Rage of Dragons is a book that promises to feature dragons in a central role. Picking up the book without knowing a thing about it, a reader might assume that the book is about dragons more than anything else. It is not about dragons. Much like in A Song of Ice and Fire, dragons are a weapon - a chess piece used both politically and militarily. They have no personality, are not in the book very much at all, and in the end prove as an important catalyst but one that the novel could have substituted any powerful item for. I don't often pick on title conventions, but I do feel that this one is a little misleading. At the same time, I love dragons and always want them in fantasy books, so this one is easy to forgive.

The only true problem I had with The Rage of Dragons is what Tau becomes. His transformation is a double-edged blade. When I said that his character growth was excellent, I meant that. It is well-paced, and we see him grow in a warrior sense throughout the story as though we were watching a character level up in a video game (an apt analogy for what he ends up getting himself into). But with that growth comes a level of ability so unmatched that it becomes ridiculous. Tau becomes invincible in a way that invalidates much of the world-building that Winter has laid out. This also makes for big problems with the inevitable sequel. By the end of The Rage of Dragons, Tau is so powerful, through his own sheer grit, that the only way to create conflict in the second book would be either to strip him somehow of his power, or to make him the villain. The former outcome is boring, and the latter robs readers of an established and interesting character. I hope Winter has a clever solution for this problem, and I suspect he does. I'm excited to see it.

If You Liked


Going in to The Rage of Dragons, I was told on numerous times to expect Gladiator, and there are certainly aspects of that with the arena combat and team-building. But what Rage most reminded me of was the Red Rising Saga, Pierce Brown's excellent space-fantasy trilogy. Darrow and Tau have very similar trajectory's, with revenge topping their list but societal transformation as the final goal. Their initiations into the real world both take place in a very dangerous academy style setting, and they even have similar growth trajectories. I think Tau is a better character, evidenced by the fact that I had to look up the protagonist of Red Rising because I couldn't remember much about him despite loving that trilogy. I think Winter does a good job of getting into Tau's head in a way that makes him unforgettable.

I also think that, through its setting, The Rage of Dragons shares much in common with books like Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone and even Nnedi Okorafor's Binti trilogy. There are certainly others that I haven't read yet that use African elements as their backdrop, and for fantasy readers this is a new and exciting direction to explore. I have also mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire twice in this review, but I think its similarities with Martin's work are fairly sparse.

Parting Thoughts 


I have concerns about Winter's second book, as outlined above, but The Rage of Dragons is so good that I have confidence that he knows what he's about with a sequel. Winter has set himself up as a solid writer, a storyteller, and a world-builder on par with some of the heavy hitters in fantasy right now. He has an advantage in that his setting is not as saturated as, say, European-based fantasy, and this helps The Rage of Dragons stand out in the melee. He also writes a hell of an ending, and it was the last quarter of this book that really solidified it as one of my favorite reads yet this year. I am here for this series and hope the quality persists.

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