Friday, October 22, 2010

Review - DragonQuest: A Novel by Donita K. Paul

Short review: Kale's slow-moving, tensionless, pseudo-Christian fantasy adventures continue.

Kale's false new mother
And Risto's new meech dragon
Hey! Tea and daggarts!

Full review: It takes a certain amount of hubris or naivete for a fantasy author to name their book DragonQuest. After all, Anne McCaffrey more or less claimed that title with her 1971 Hugo-nominated Dragonriders of Pern novel Dragonquest. The name has also serves as the name for the SPI published DragonQuest fantasy role playing game, and a massively popular series of computer console games. In the case of Donita K. Paul and her Christian fantasy DragonQuest, the second book in The Dragonkeeper Chronicles following after DragonSpell (read review) and preceding DragonKnight (read review), I tend to think that the title choice probably springs from a lack of familiarity with the fantasy fiction genre. This assessment stems from the realization that DragonQuest is not really a work of fantasy fiction. It is, in fact, a fairly didactic work of Christian advocacy playing a pretty poor version of dress up in fantasy clothing.

The plot of the novel is fairly straightforward. Having been thwarted in his efforts to acquire a meech egg by the heroes in DragonSpell, the evil wizard Risto acquires another one and instead of carrying out his Earth-shattering plan to create a new "low" race from it, he abandons that idea and instead hatches it so he can train the meech to influence other dragons to join his side. In the meantime, an unknown force drops a bunch of "Creemore spiders" on Vendela (which is where Kale and Dar have been training as freshly inducted leecents in Paladin's army) who wreck havoc just as Kale, with two new characters named Bardon and Toopka, is set to head off to Fenworth's castle in order to help raise the brand new meech dragon that hatched from the egg Kale and her friends saved from Risto in the first book. Along the way, Kale is wounded and poisoned by a Creemore spider and we are told she is near death. Because the story is told entirely from Kale's perspective, the drama of her recovery takes place almost entirely outside the narrative of the book. Essentially, the reader gets told "Kale is near death and in dire straits" on one page, and "Kale has been healed by Fenworth and out of danger" on the next, removing any possibility of dramatic tension.

The fact that Kale's recovery takes place basically off-stage presages a recurring theme in the book: any big, dramatic developments almost all take place off-camera, with the reader only told about them as a fait accompli after the fact. The expedition to hunt down the Creemore spiders and discover who sent them to Vendela, the assembling of an army to defeat Risto, the trickery behind the defection and return of the "good" dragons, and even the climactic battle against Risto's forces all take place out of sight of the reader, primarily because Kale was not there to witness them. While this preserves the purity of Kale as a viewpoint character, it was the author's choice to have Kale not present for so many of these events. As a result, the book has far less actual drama and tension than it should have. This might be understandable if the narrative path that Kale and her companions take had its own drama, but instead the reader is mostly treated to a slow moving series of moral lessons in which the pseudo-Christian fantasy religion is imparted to the reader. To a certain extent, at points it seems like Mrs. Paul forgot she was writing a fantasy novel, instead of a Sunday school lesson plan, as it seems like it was far more important to her to have the characters repeatedly talk about how they are powerless and worthless without Wulder (who serves as the fantasy world version of God) to guide and protect them and Paladin (who is the fantasy stand-in for Jesus) to tell them the correct way to properly worship and exalt Wulder.

Once everyone reaches Fenworth's castle and the meech dragon, named Regidor, is introduced, they emphasize the urgency of the mission to investigate the Creemore spider attack and stop Risto's meech dragon from influencing the dragons of the world to rally to the side of evil by spending a lot of time drinking tea, eating daggarts and mullins, and waiting for an accidentally quickened minor dragon egg to hatch. This does allow for some character development for the young doneel Toopka and the rapidly growing meech dragon Regidor. It turns out that meech dragons are basically humanoid dragons, based on the description given they look more or less like a scaly person with sharp teeth, sharp claws, and a tail. Given that they are intelligent, capable of speech, and seem to basically be people with some lizard-like affinity, one has to wonder why they are not counted as one of the seven "high" races, or one of the seven "low" races. One might suppose their rarity prevents them from being counted, but the story chips away at the rarity argument when Dar casually makes reference to a "meech colony" that was attacked by Risto (which really is odd, given that we have been told that meech dragons are so unheard of that the existence of the meech egg from which Regidor hatched was considered to be a once in a lifetime occurrence). It also doesn't really make much sense that whether a particular race is counted as a race or not depends on how many of them there are given that Wulder (who we are told is the source of all knowledge in the fantasy land of Amara) is supposedly omniscient. I suspect that the reason may be that the seven high and low races may not actually be "fantasy races" in the sense that most people who read fantasy fiction would be familiar with. In the book, after she returns to the village where she was the village slave before discovering her first dragon egg and being set free, Kale begins to consider the "marione virtues" that grated on her when she lived among them, and how each race displays different virtues that must be combined together for a harmonious whole. Although she has not yet made the connection explicit, based upon the didactic nature of the book, my guess is that Mrs. Paul is setting up a correspondence between each of the seven high races and one of the seven cardinal virtues, and between the seven low races and the seven deadly sins. In short, the reason that there are seven high and seven low races seems to be to fill out a spiritually significant checklist rather than any organic purpose in the setting, and thus the meech dragons are superfluous to that goal and therefore are not counted.

So after piddling around for a few weeks of afternoon snacking, the new minor dragon is hatched - who turns out to be a "laughter dragon" capable of making people feel mirthful. This, we are told, is going to be important on the upcoming quest. But, as one might expect in a book that consistently brings up random and supposedly important details only to drop them without any real explanation, it turns out to have no actual value at all on the quest. Dar shows up with the riding dragons, and after a brief fight with some mordakleeps and blimmets (that, as with much of the action of the book, takes place mostly out of sight, with Kale and Regidor providing magical assistance from miles away) the group sets out question to find the source of the Creemore spiders by camping far away from where the Creemore spiders live and cooking oversize mushrooms like steaks and other tasty meals. Interrupting the cooking scenes, Cam, a lake wizard shows up, and a beautiful woman well-dressed appears to Kale and claims to be her mother Lyll and tells her to keep her visits a secret. This is intended to set up a conflict in Kale, as she is encouraged by the beautiful Lyll to abandon her companions and the urgent quest of preparing lots of breakfast foods and run away to Risto's castle. The problem is that Lyll is pretty unconvincing - and Mrs. Paul seems not to even really want to make her seem tempting other than to describe how pretty her clothes are and have Kale think about how much she wants to have a family. But the Lyll presented in these scenes turns nasty so quickly that any amount of real dramatic conflict dissipates almost immediately, leaving the reader to wonder about Kale's sanity as she continues to consider running off with a woman who berates and verbally abuses her.

Of course, since the action is getting far too close to the pages, Paladin has to show up and direct Kale, Toopka, Bardon, Regidor and Dar to go find the renegade meech dragon and turn it away from Risto's service, leaving Fenworth and Cam to deal with the spiders. This also gives Paladin the opportunity to dispense some fairly offensive advice to the heroes as they head through the magical gate that will whisk them across the continent to where the evil meech dragon might be. Paladin stops each of the travelers to give them some personalized theological advice, and when he comes to Toopka, a child who has spent most of her life prior to meeting Kale as a homeless orphan living rough on the streets of Vendela, he chastises her for not being honest. There are times you want to reach inside a book and punch one of the characters in the mouth for being a complete dick. This was one of those times. The gall of taking a street urchin who had been forced by circumstances Wulder arranged to lie, cheat, and steal just to have food to eat and then chastising her for not learning a moral code that she clearly never had an opportunity to learn is simply staggering. And this callous, obnoxious, and distasteful figure is the Jesus analogue in Mrs. Paul's fantasy world. Paladin also requires Kale to set about hatching another egg, which he specifically selects as being particularly well-suited to help with the challenges that will face her in her quest. It turns out to be a light dragon but, as usual, despite this build up there is nothing particularly useful about having the dragon along.

One thing that makes Paladin's interlude with Toopka seem so odd is that through the rest of the book Mrs. Paul has the various characters espouse what can only be described as a theological doctrine of personal helplessness and worthlessness. The characters repeatedly assert that they are incapable of accomplishing anything without Wulder's help, and that they cannot take any actions without Wulder's power and authority. This further saps any actual tension from the book, since it results in a collection of characters who don't do much of anything, and when they do, they always end up succeeding because Wulder is on their side. The structure of the book, since the purpose is clearly to impart "correct" theological lessons rather than tell an actual story, violates the basic rule of storytelling, since there is no actual conflict in the book that has any meaning at all. Of course, other than personal interviews with Paladin, it isn't clear where anyone is supposed to learn the wisdom of Wulder. There is a passing reference to the books of Wulder, although they are apparently so rare that they never heard of them in the village Kale was raised in, and when imparting Wulder's knowledge to her, neither Granny Noon nor Fenworth's personal librarian Librettowit make any reference to them. A person identified as a parson crosses paths with the motley band of travelers when they stop at an inn, and is supposedly something of a religious authority, but he requires Dar to argue in favor of Wulder's service before the other patrons will accept him as anything other than a useless appendage. This particular scene also highlights yet another weakness of the book: Mrs. Paul often doesn't even bother to set up a straw man to have her characters argue against, she just has one of the characters say the "correct" version of Wulder's teachings, and those who had been indifferent or opposed to Wulder's message generally snap into line immediately. In short, Amara is the sort of fantasy world where one can do the equivalent of quoting John 3:16 to nonbelievers and have them immediately see the light with no further convincing necessary.

Of course, this sort of conversion only works on the indifferent or the misguided. The heroes, being on the side of Wulder, are immune to the temptations of the forces of evil. The designated villains, being written as essentially insane, seem to be immune to Wulder's message. Once the heroes catch up to the villainous meech dragon, a female named Gilda, who has been spreading discord among dragons, convincing them to leave their family farms and join Risto's cause, she is completely unconvinced by Regidor's arguments in favor of serving Wulder. From a certain perspective this is understandable, since Regidor's arguments are completely unconvincing (probably because neither he nor anyone else in the book has ever had to do more than mouth some platitudes about how great Wulder is and the listener immediately agrees with them), but I suspect that Mrs. Paul intended for the reader to be impressed with the theological arguments between the two meech dragons and come to understand just how right Regidor is. Despite this, the book ends with Gilda still unconvinced that Risto is a villain, but imprisoned in a bottle and thus helpless. I guess in a world in which village slavery is acceptable, imprisoning someone in a bottle until they see the light counts as "rescuing" them. The reunion between Kale and the real Lyll Alerion is similarly unconvincing. (You didn't really think the beautiful but nasty Lyll was really Kale's mother did you? That would have set up an actual conflict in the book, and that is apparently to be avoided like the plague). Lyll makes some very weak justifications for leaving her only child in a village full of meriones to be their slave as opposed to, say, asking one of her good friends like the Wizard Fenworth or the Wizard Cam to take care of her. Or leaving her in the care of Paladin's followers in Vendela, or any number of other choices that would seem far superior to a childhood of slavery. The real Lyll is, of course, sweet and loving, but not as beautiful as the false one (at first, a situation that is rectified quickly). Kale is kidnapped in a last gasp effort by the forces of evil, and a wholly unconvincing temptation sequence lays out in which the false Lyll tries to berate and insult Kale into choosing her. One of the fundamental problems with the book appears to be that Mrs. Paul cannot understand the thought process of a nonbeliever, and as a result resorts to unconvincing caricatures as opposition for her protagonists.

On the other hand, the problem may be that Mrs. Paul is simply not very good at drawing any more substantial than cardboard characters. Bardon, who is supposed to be difficult and unpleasant to work with, and whom Kale is required to take along with her when she sets out into the world, turns out to be so bland as a character that one frequently forgets that he is supposed to be a stiff-necked pain in the neck. The various wizards have what are supposed to be funny magical quirks - Fenworth changes into a tree if he sits still for a while, Cam drips water all the time, and Lyll gets older if she is sedentary and younger if she exercises - but they have little more than one-dimensional personalities. And this seems to extend to the setting itself. Most of the fantasy elements go little more than surface deep, and once the veneer wears thin, the fundamentally mundane nature of the world begins to peek through. The characters eat mullins and daggarts, but these seem to be little more than alternate words for doughnuts and muffins. Illustrating the skin deep nature of the fantasy element is the "beater frog", described in the obligatory glossary of fantasy terms as a "Tailless, semiaquatic amphibian having a smooth, moist skin, webbed feet, and long hind legs. Shades of green; no bigger than a child's fist; capable of making a loud, resounding boom". As an observant reader would note, this basically describes this animal as "a frog that can make a loud boom". Once you knock the thin coating of fantasy names off, there just isn't much left other than a bunch of badly presented lessons in pseudo-Christianity that make Risto and the Pretender look like a much better option than the callous Wulder and the dickish Paladin. This sort of superficial reskinning of the mundane in an effort to create a fantasy reality makes one think that Mrs. Paul is not particularly well-read in the field of fantasy fiction, and merely chose this genre because it would serve to draw younger readers in and let her beat them over the head and shoulders with her religious message. The actual lesson a reader will probably take away from the book is that it takes more than renaming a collection of mundane world elements to make an effective fantasy setting.

In between didactic sessions of moral instruction, justifications for slavery, repeated protestations by the characters as to their own personal worthlessness, and dinners of renamed the story meanders along aimlessly until the big confrontation occurs. But Mrs. Paul puts limited effort into this aspect of the book. The big threat facing the heroes is the supposedly beguiling Gilda, and her enhanced ability to turn dragons away from working with the members of the "high" races and join Risto's army. This supposedly threatens the economy of Amara, as everyone supposedly depends upon their dragons for just about everything, but as with so many other fantasy elements of the setting, this is never really shown. Instead, the reader is told that the dragons are critical, without being given any real clear indication by example as to why this is so. And when Regidor and Kale confront Gilda, he does not seem to be swayed at all, and neither do Kale's minor dragons. The heroes raise an army of merione farmers to oppose Risto's forces with little effort, which is leavened by a collection of reinforcements. Once the heroes do go out to confront Risto's forces, their dragons seemingly defect to Risto's side, but this turns out to be little more than a ruse by the good guys to turn Risto's dragons back to the side of good (or, at least the side of Wulder, which I'm not sure is actually the side of good). But since we cannot have anything of importance happen "on-camera", Kale only finds out about the ruse after it is over and the good dragons have returned. The good guys also get the bulk of Risto's forces to desert by making the weather bad, although the desertion takes place, yet again, off-camera. Then, as the battle rages (off-camera again), Cam, Fenworth, the real Lyll, and Kale all go to confront Risto and the false Lyll (who turns out to be the evil sorceress Burner Stox). Cam and Lyll prove to be laughably ineffective, and Risto is eventually defeated almost by accident (but since there are no accidents in Wulder's world, it was all part of his design) in a fairly anticlimactic scene.

Overall, if one were looking for an interesting fantasy story, then DragonQuest, with its poorly worked out story and superficial fantasy setting is likely to be a major disappointment. Even if someone were specifically looking for a fantasy story with Christian overtones, picking up DragonQuest would probably turn out to be a disappointment since the story element is completely suborned to the didactic Christian lessons, and several of those lessons turn out to be fairly objectionable. The only people likely to actually enjoy this book are those who are already convinced of the rightness of the particular brand of Christianity that Mrs. Paul is promoting, and I suspect that those are not the people she intended to reach. In the end, the clumsy and pervasive preaching completely overwhelms a what little fantasy story there is and results in a book that is simply not a particularly enjoyable piece of fiction.

Previous book in the series: DragonSpell: A Novel
Subsequent book in the series: DragonKnight: A Novel

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