Monday, November 22, 2010

Review - DragonFire: A Novel by Donita K. Paul

Short review: The Dragonkeeper Chronicles almost find a story to tell, but then all dramatic tension is lost when a supposedly scary villains is killed by accident, and other supposedly scary villains turn out to be no threat at all.

While Kale dithers
Evil Wulder kills thousands
Oops, the bad guys died

Full review: The primary weakness of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles is not that Mrs. Paul attempts to mix fantasy with Christian mythology in what seems to be a morality play designed to give the story a "correct" moral message. After all, this is a fairly common practice indulged in by even the grandfathers of modern fantasy such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who infused a Christian message into their fantasy. And the roots run much deeper than that, one need only look at Spenser's Faerie Queene or Andre Norton's translation of Huon of the Horn to see the lengthy pedigree of the entanglement. The weakness of DragonFire and the remainder of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles is that when Mrs. Paul inserted a collection of pseudo-Christian messages into her books, she forgot to include much in the way of an interesting story as a vehicle to carry them.

The opening chapters of DragonFire illustrate this point fairly well. In DragonKnight (read review), the previous book in the series, the knight Bardon declares his interest in the wizard Kale, who states quite quaintly that she desires to be properly courted. But in the opening pages of DragonFire one learns that not only has the story the reader is allowed to see skipped over showing the reader Bardon and Kale's courtship, they got married three years prior to the start of the book. A handful of pages into the story, we learn that Regidor and Gilda have also fallen in love and gotten married, and not only that, Kale has discovered a way to reverse Gilda's incorporeal affliction, once again, all reported to the reader as already accomplished facts. Instead of actually engaging the reader with the story of the characters and their relationships with one another, which might pull the reader into her fictional world and make one care about them and their struggles, Mrs. Paul clearly considers it more important to have her characters spout quotations concerning correct moral action from the "Tomes of Wulder".

This doesn't mean that the pseudo-Christian moral lessons are delivered particularly well either. Mrs. Paul seems to take it for granted that the reader will see the correctness of her characters' moral pronouncements as self-evident, and usually doesn't bother to effectively illustrate them in the story. In the early going in the book, our heroes run across an eccentric elderly emmerlindian who holds less than orthodox views concerning Wulder. Bardon reflects that this will hamper the effectiveness of the assistance this emmerlindian provides them, but of course, the confirmation of this is nowhere to be found in the book. Apparently, the reader is just supposed to take for granted that Bardon is correct, since he is, after all, correctly quoting from the "Tomes of Wulder" and the emmerlindian is not. This sort of sloppy storytelling runs through the entire book, as plot thread after plot thread is simply dropped without any kind of real resolution other than some character mouthing platitudes from the "Tomes of Wulder".

What makes DragonFire really disappointing is that in the middle third of the book it seems as if an actual story might break out - Kale and her father head off to try to find the dragons of Amara and rally them to Paladin's cause, and Bardon and the other characters all head off to try to halt the warring armies of Burner Stox, Crim Cropper, and The Pretender, all of whom have fallen to fighting one another for not particularly well explained reasons. The fact that the characters are actually doing something more or less proactive is tempered by the fact that they had to be told to head off and take action directly by Paladin, once again reinforcing the call to passivity that had been a theme of the prior books in the series. But true to form, the characters quickly abandon any kind of proactive action and let themselves be pulled along by events - Kale and her father abandon looking for dragons when they stumble across a pilfering ropma, and of course, getting side tracked from their goal leads Kale and her father directly to their goal, because everything is part of Wulder's plan and therefore you should just drift through life and not actually try to focus on any goal more distant than one's feet. Of course, this seems to cause the characters trouble, as Bardon, afflicted with the childhood illness of "the stakes" is captured just outside his main headquarters because he didn't think to post any guards to keep Crim Cropper's bisonbeck patrols more than a hundred feet from his camp.

But even this tiny bit of tension evaporates away. When Kale and her father finally confront Burner Stox, a horrible evil sorceress that has been built up as a dangerous villain since the first book in the series, she is killed by accident by a well-meaning but stupid dragon. Crim Cropper's death is more dramatic, but before he dies he clumsily allows Bardon to escape from imprisonment. In the end, even The Pretender turns out to be no threat at all. First, despite accepting a gift from The Pretender, Kale suffers no untoward effects, and the gift turns out to be entirely beneficial to her and Paladin's cause. So much for The Pretender being effective at deception or seduction. And then, when confronted by Paladin, it turns out that The Pretender is powerless because Wulder has decreed it so. The primary villain turning out to be no threat at all may be correct pseudo-Christian theology, but it makes for a pretty uninteresting story. Further, given that all of the events of the book are clearly stated to be according to Wulder's grand design, one has to wonder about the cruelty of a deity like Wulder who seems to have, as part of his plan, the wanton slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands of people at the hands of the various evil forces. Rather than convincing the reader of Wulder's supposed love for the people of Amara (and consequently, God's supposed love for the people of Earth), one finds oneself repulsed by such a callous and unthinking deity.

The questionable morality seems to be a theme through to book too. At one point, The Pretender performs some sort of mind-control over a collection of grawligs (or mountain ogres) to make them relentlessly hunt down kimens, drawn by the scent of the diminutive beings. In one of the few instances of planning by the heroes, Bardon builds timber stockades to entice and entrap the grawligs. Once the grawligs are trapped, apparently Bardon and his troops are squeamish about killing the enraged ogres. Squeamish, that is, until the kimens suggest shooting them with kimen arrows. These apparently won't actually harm the ogres, but will make them smell like a kimen, causing the other grawligs trapped in the stockade to attack and kill them. I'm not sure how one reconciles the idea that killing grawligs (as sentient beings) is wrong with the idea that goading them into a frenzy in which they kill each other is not wrong. And this is only one instance in which the weird twisted morality espoused by Mrs. Paul's heroes makes one scratch one's head, especially since the book is clearly trying to promote these ideas as something that the intended audience should take as a valuable life lesson and emulate.

With undeveloped characters and undeveloped interrelationships between characters (both of which are kind of amazing given that this is the fourth book in a series that features the same characters throughout), a plot that more or less just drifts from place to place, and ineffective nonthreatening villains, DragonFire is, like the rest of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles, a limp and uninteresting exercise in didactic instruction of dubious moral lessons. Though it makes a feeble stab at having an actual story, which raises it above the other books in the series in terms of quality, the fact that huge chunks of the story are told "off-camera" (including the climatic battle against The Pretender's own army) and those parts that are told are mostly just characters reciting the dubious morality of the pseudo-Christian "Tomes of Wulder", the book is simply a decidedly below average piece of young adult fantasy fiction.

Previous book in the series: DragonKnight: A Novel.
Subsequent book in the series: DragonLight: A Novel.

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