Sunday, December 12, 2010
Review - DragonLight: A Novel by Donita K. Paul
Short review: The story of The Dragon Keeper Chronicles wanders aimlessly until a deus ex machina from left field brings it to a pointless conclusion.
Followers show up
Mot Angara from left field
Deus ex machina!
Full review: In this fifth, and final book of the series, The Dragon Keeper Chronicles stumbles to a close with most of the characters standing around not doing much of anything while the action is resolved by a poorly set up deus ex machina. This book offers a new, and more or less random villain, and also includes more examples of Mrs. Paul's tendency to leave plot threads hanging, resolve much of the action of the story off-stage, and eschew storytelling in favor of didactic pseudo-Christian lessons. In short, DragonLight follows in the turgid and uninteresting footsteps of its predecessors to deliver a decidedly weak story and an uninspired reading experience.
The story picks up several years after where DragonFire (read review) left off with Amara having enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity after the successive defeats of Risto, Burner Stox, Crim Cropper, and The Pretender. This idyllic existence is shattered when Bardon discovers "The Followers" a monastic sect of Paladin worshippers who have upset the natural order by setting up a small settlement so they can live out an ascetic existence of wearing uniform clothing, eating bad food, and not speaking much. But their ideas are almost immediately dubbed heretical, and they are identified as a threat. It seems as though Mrs. Paul is using The Followers to make a comment upon religious sects whose theology she disapproves of - the doctrine espoused by The Followers seems to bear some similarities to the teachings of Scientologists, Mormons, Catholics, and maybe a couple of other religious groups - but it is difficult to identify exactly who is being metaphorically condemned. It is also difficult for the reader to figure out what specifically is heretical about the teachings of The Followers, since Mrs. Paul has done such a poor job of establishing the parameters of the pseudo-Christian Wulder worship that is at the heart of her books. Bardon, Dar, Kale, and the other main characters certainly tell the reader that The Followers are twisting Wulder's teachings, but the reader has almost no way of figuring it out on their own. And this simply highlights one of the primary recurring weaknesses of Mrs. Paul's storytelling: instead of providing sufficient background information and then allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions, she waits until a crisis has arisen in the story and dictates to the reader what the correct solution is, oftentimes using "principles of Wulder" elucidated for the first time as the solution to the crisis.
Of course, no matter how dangerous this threat is, it cannot stand in the way of Bardon and Kale heading off to dance at a party and then trek to the uncharted northern reaches to help Regidor and Gilda find the lost meech colony. After all, Regidor and Gilda have only waited several years to make this journey, so it is clearly of pressing importance that it be done immediately despite the sudden appearance of a mysterious heretical sect. Somewhat justifying this sudden need to head to the wilderness in search of the secretive meech colony is the fact that Gilda is carrying an egg that she insists she can only present to what she imagines to be the glorious meech civilization. However, Bardon and Kale seem to take a fatalistic attitude that, having decided to help search for the lost meech colony, they cannot turn aside and deal with a different potential threat because Wulder apparently already assigned them the "find the meech colony" quest, and they can't do anything else until they complete that.
(As an aside, one meme that runs through all of the books in the series is this very self-conscious attitude that the characters have when they are undertaking a task that they are then "on a quest". This sort of thinking more or less fits with the didactic tone of the books, but it still makes the characters and situations seem oddly artificial. Apparently, once one is "on a quest' it seems that one is more or less obligated refuse any change to one's objectives until the appointed task has been completed, yielding a sort of single-minded myopia that dovetails fairly well with the central theme of surrendering all personal initiative that runs through the books.)
After the obligatory dilly-dallying that seems to crop up in just about all of the Dragon Keeper books when danger threatens (in this case, spending lots of time getting to and participating in a big dance party), Bardon discovers the second big "threat" the rears its head to threaten the peacefulness of Amara in the form of swarms of tiny fire-breathing poison-spined black dragons that seem to randomly crop up and mindlessly attack whoever happens to be in their way. Of course, since Kale and Bardon are on the "find the meech colony" quest, there is no possibility that they might investigate where these dragon swarms are coming from instead, no matter how relevant Kale's skills as a "dragon keeper" might be. Instead, Kale and Bardon head off to the northern reaches to find Regidor and Gilda, but not before Mrs. Paul sidetracks the story to show the reader how a secondary character has created the amazing innovation of a magical crystal ball.
One would think that in a series titled The Dragon Keeper Chronicles that being a dragon keeper might be central to the stories. But other than the fact that Kale can find dragon eggs (of dubious value to the plots of the stories), and has a menagerie of trivially useful minor dragons that follow her around, being a dragon keeper doesn't seem to be that big of a deal, despite the constant utterances of other characters about how special this gift supposedly is. In fact, except for the fact that the mindless dragon swarms seem to react quite oddly to Kale's presence, there is no indication that her status as "dragon keeper" is of any value at all, and despite the book heavily featuring the meech dragons and eventually a dragon antagonist, her supposedly incredibly special talents don't feature in this book at all. This should not surprise anyone who has read through the series to this point, as dropping plot threads is more or less Mrs. Paul's stock-in-trade as an author. For example, the plot of DragonSpell (read review) revolved around the threatened use of the powers of an unhatched meech egg to create a new eighth "low race" and upset the balance of power in Amara. But once that book concluded, that entire line of thinking vanished from the series, never to be mentioned again. One would think that if meech eggs were this powerful, in a coherently designed fantasy world the meech would live in fear that their eggs would be stolen to be used by some mad wizard seeking power. But since Mrs. Paul isn't really interested in telling a story so much as she is interested in imparting "correct" moral lessons, once the usefulness of a plot device has served its instructive purpose, it seems to be dropped without a second thought.
The story more or less plods on, as everyone stops off in a village to have the usual interruption of their pressing quest to partake in a leisurely round of tea and cakes. Mrs. Paul seems to have figured out that her characters aren't really moving with much urgency, since an earthquake literally shakes everyone out of their complacency. Of course, there are no casualties, because Toopka runs about with Stittiponder (yes, they brought small children on a supposedly dangerous quest) and warns everyone the earthquake is coming. How does she know? Well, like most "knowledge" that people glean in this series, she just knows it presumably via divine inspiration. But rebuilding from the earthquake is interrupted when Kale and Bardon are called upon to rescue Holt from his espionage mission to infiltrate the Followers. While the actual rescue of Holt takes place as part of the narrative of the book, Mrs. Paul is true to form and has most of the interaction with the Followers, like so many of the other plot elements of the book, take place entirely off-stage. Time and again some interesting plot point comes up, and then is resolved entirely out of sight of the reader, only to be reported after the fact. The wizard Namee is tempted to join the Followers and repents, off-stage. Holt convinces many of the Followers to leave the cult, off-stage. Holt rescues the children held by the Followers, off-stage. Paladin is imprisoned by the Followers, off-stage. N'Rae is called in to permit communication with the imprisoned Paladin using animals, off-stage. Paladin's Followers rise up and defeat the Followers, off-stage. In short, almost everything that has to do with the rise and fall of this supposedly sinister threat to all of Amara is too unimportant to actually include in the book as anything other than an afterthought.
And this is because Mrs. Paul feels compelled to introduce a new villain, having either killed off or rendered impotent all of the villains from the previous books. First Risto was the main opponent, and henchman (and rival) to the supposedly even more powerful Pretender. But he was killed off in a wizard duel in DragonQuest (read review). The Burner Stox and Crim Cropper were elevated from Risto's henchmen to main villains, and once again potential rivals to The Pretender (apparently, when you are evil, loyalty is such a foreign concept that every henchman is just itching to bump off their boss and take his place). But they were killed off in DragonFire - Stox almost by accident, and Cropper in a fairly dull fight while riding a dragon. And then at the end of DragonFire Paladin dismisses The Pretender as a nonthreat almost contemptuously, rendering the supposedly dire danger to all of Amara completely impotent with a wave of his hand. While this might be theologically satisfying to adherents to Mrs. Paul's particular brand of faith, it makes for a pretty weak story. And it necessitates producing a new villainous threat to Amara from thin air. So for DragonLight Mrs. Paul conjures up the previously unmentioned (and for the characters in the story, previously unknown) mountain-sized dragon Mot Angra from the weeds out beyond left-field. Mot Angra proves to be the source of one of the two horrible threats facing Amara, while the other turns out to have have an almost entirely random and trivial source. As an aside, one is left to wonder how strong the faith Amarans have in Wulder truly is if it is shaken to its foundation by a threat that has such a minor origin.
But the fact that these threats result from these wild card elements in the story doesn't prove to be a hindrance to the characters, because time and again, Mrs. Paul drives home the point that one shouldn't try to figure out anything on one's own, or even really take the initiative, since Wulder will provide the answer to everything. Several plots points come up that a reader might expect would foreshadow the resolution of the story, but any of these that result from characters using their own initiative to solve a problem all turn out to be red herrings. When Kale and the kimens get close to Mot Angra, their powers over light seem to falter, which leads Kale to speculate that "light" might be a means to defeat the dragon. This turns out to be a red herring. At one point, Regidor heads off to try to consult Librettowitt's extensive library to find out if anyone has ever recorded any weaknesses of the dragon, but this turns out to be a red herring. Regidor's research turns up nothing, and oddly, Regidor's response is to return to join in an effort to defeat the dragon using brute force tactics that everyone had previously agreed simply would not work (and in case you were wondering, they don't). Several characters speculate that Kale's abilities as a "dragon-keeper" might prove to be useful in dealing with the threat of a massive evil dragon. This proves to be a red herring, as Kale's powers prove to be completely useless (seemingly proving yet again that being a "dragon-keeper" is of almost no consequence to the stories). Paladin does solve the mystery of the lost lyrics to a song that is supposedly important for keeping Mot Angra imprisoned, but he doesn't actually do much other than just know what the right lyrics are, and once again, this bit of knowledge proves to be of no consequence in defeating Mot Angra. Basically, the message Mrs. Paul seems intent on conveying is that taking the initiative to solve a problem is just a waste of time. One should simply sit on one's ass and wait for God, excuse me Wulder, to solve them for you.
And Wulder does solve the problem in the end, in a manner that is almost entirely random, entirely unsatisfying, and serves to demonstrate what a dick Mrs. Paul's God really is. Basically, Toopka and Stittiponder (remember, we are taking children along on our dangerous quest into the unknown to confront an otherworldly and as far as the characters know undefeatable menace) are visited by God, er Wulder. Wulder removes a lump from Toopka's heart that has been killing her and cures Stittiponder's blindness. These actions supposedly show Wulder's love, but since Wulder is directly responsible for the debilitating conditions to begin with, the real message is that Wulder is like a firefighter who commits arson so he can be the hero who puts the blaze out. Wulder made Stittiponder a blind street urchin to begin with, so how is it an act of love for Wulder to then cure his blindness? Wulder inserted a ruck hard lump that almost kills her into Toopka's body for his own purposes (more on that later), so how it is an act of love for him to cure her? In short, Mrs. Paul's message, which is supposed to cause the reader to gaze in wonder at the glory of God's (umm, Wulder's) love, really amounts to "Wulder is a complete jerk who uses people like playthings because it amuses him". But Toopka manages to defeat Mot Angra with a device that is literally a deus ex machina that has almost no groundwork laid for it. In short, despite the characters spending much of the latter half of the book worrying about how to defeat Mot Angra and trying to figure out a way to do it, none of that matters and everything is resolved by a plot device that pops up at the last second. Of course, Wulder isn't a kind enough deity to resolve the plot without lots of soldiers and kimens getting killed by the evil dragon, so at least Wulder is consistently portrayed as a dick in the books.
As a bonus, in the final chapter, Mrs. Paul adds in a story about Toopka's background that further reinforces Wulder's dickish nature, as it turns out that she was not just a homeless street urchin. It is revealed that she had previously been a fully grown woman who watched her husband and children get killed and to "spare her the pain" Wulder transformed her into a child and suppressed the bad memories. This apparently allowed Toopka to carry around "Wulder's truth" to be used to defeat Mot Angra. But since, according the the theology of the book, nothing happens without Wulder directing it to be so, rather than sparing Toopka the pain of seeing her entire family killed, Wulder was the agent that caused that pain to begin with. And Wulder presumably did it because, despite being supposedly omnipotent, he couldn't think of a better way to defeat Mot Angra than having a bunch of children killed in front of their mother. It is obvious that Mrs. Paul really wants the reader to come away from her didactic tale with the impression that Wulder is an awesome deity, and by way of analogy, the God at the center of her real life faith is also an awesome deity. But unfortunately, the lesson that the story actually gives is that Wulder is a more evil entity than any of the "villains" that have been propped up to oppose him, and by analogy, so is the version of God that Mrs. Paul is evangelizing for.
In the end, DragonLight and The Dragon Keeper Chronicles lurch to an unsatisfying conclusion. The book closes on a deus ex machina that feels almost like a non-sequitur to the rest of the plot. And since the villain in this book is more or less unconnected to the villains or the plots from the first four books, it seems to not really be a conclusion to the series so much as the point where Mrs. Paul ran out of moralizing lessons to provide so she just stopped writing. In The Lord of the Rings the series stopped when Frodo destroyed the ring, and thus defeated Sauron. In The Chronicles of Narnia the series ended when the world ended. In The Chronicles of Prydain the series ended when Arawn was defeated. In The Dragon Keeper Chronicles the series just peters out without any real sort of overarching triumph or thematic conclusion. As a result, in addition to being didactic and lacking in strong storytelling, the series is also incredibly disjointed. As the conclusion to a weak and unsatisfying series that lacks any kind of continuing story, DragonLight is just not worth bothering with.
Previous book in the series: DragonFire: A Novel
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