Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review - DragonKnight: A Novel by Donita K. Paul

Short review: Bardon stumbles through a glacially slow quest without much thought. But that's okay because Wulder doesn't want you to think, you can just rely on him to fix everything for you.

Bardon goes questing
Just by sitting on his ass
No real story here

Full review: Q: What would you get if you wrote a fantasy book filled with pseudo-Christian moralizing but left out anything resembling a real story?

A: You'd get the book DragonKnight.

The Dragonkeeper Chronicles trudge on in this third installment featuring Bardon, a secondary character introduced in DragonQuest (read review), the previous book in the series. The story moves at a glacial pace, filled with frenetic but pointless action that mostly has nothing at all to do with what little plot the book has, and which is periodically interrupted with bits of pseudo-Christian sermonizing that advocate a particularly passive way of dealing with life.

The primary problem with the book is that the plot is basically a haphazard collection of random coincidences strung together that flow by without the characters making any real decisions for themselves. The reason that the characters aimlessly stumble through the events of the book is that the religious message intended to be conveyed is clearly the idea that Wulder (standing in for God) has a plan for everything, and thus there are no coincidences, and the correct course of action is simply to trust in Wulder and everything will turn out okay. This particular piece of religious advocacy in favor of passivity results in a book in which the characters don't actually do much besides react to events as they pop up in front of them, and as one might expect, this makes for a fairly uninteresting story.

The plot of the book, such as it is, involves Bardon setting out on sabbatical for a year of solitude before he decides whether to dedicate his life to serving as a knight of Paladin. When he arrives at his designated sabbatical retreat, he discovers that two emmerlindian women, Granny Kye and her granddaughter N'Rae, and a minneken have taken up residence before him, and they have a quest that needs to be undertaken to boot.

"Wait", I hear you cry, "what the heck is a minneken"? Well, if you must know, it is a miniature race of beings that are somewhat similar in shape and size to a mouse that hails from the previously unmentioned Isle of Kye. This particular minneken, Jue Seeno, has been assigned as N'Rae's protector (although why N'rae needs a mouse-like protector is never really explained, and neither is how Jue was selected for the job). This, of course, runs counter to the assertions in DragonSpell (read review) that there are only seven high races and seven low races, and adding more races will somehow cause earth shattering disaster and signal the end of the world. But, given the introduction of the very humanoid meech dragons in DragonQuest, ignoring anything resembling continuity in world-building seems to be a common practice for Mrs. Paul. In short, what seemed like some clever world construction in DragonSpell turns out to have been just a convenient excuse for a plot MacGuffin, and was cast aside as soon as the MacGuffin was no longer needed.

Bardon, of course, cancels his plans to reflect on whether he wants to dedicate himself to Paladin's service, and instead agrees to help N'Rae find her long-lost father who was imprisoned by a spell cast by Risto that will expire and kill him when a particular comet reaches a particular spot in the sky. Apparently Risto would stop by and renew the spell keeping N'Rae's father in his enchanted slumber every now and then, but since he was killed in the last book he can't do that any more. Lest one stop and wonder why Risto would bother enchanting someone under a spell that he had to check back on periodically rather than just, say, killing them, Mrs. Paul throws in some random action to distract us, having Bardon fight a water snake and then a mountain lion before everyone heads out through the conveniently provided magical portal to a nearby city.

Once there, Bardon sets out to earn some money, and coincidentally there is a kindia breeder who needs several of the animals broken and is offering large sums of money to anyone who can. Like most other fantasy elements, the kindia, a sort of over sized horse with a sloped back and a temperamental disposition, are more or less dropped into the story as a plot device without any kind of foundation laid for their existence as an integral element of the fantasy world they inhabit. After Bardon spends a laborious day training a single kindia, it serendipitously turns out that N'Rae has a unique magical ability that makes taming the breeder's remaining stock a swift and easy process. The breeder, after some more plot extraneous action involving a kindia race, tries to rope N'rae and her special talent into his household by trying to get her to marry his son Holt. The characters kind of mill about randomly for a while, fighting random quiss or sea dragons when the novel slows down too much, getting arrested for stealing food for orphans, getting the orphans handed to their care as punishment, having Holt show up running from his creditors while trying to make passes at N'Rae and taking him in as a member of their crew because, as someone points out, they could use an extra strong body to help out on their quest, and he's handy. The strange appearances of quiss are set up as some sort of mystery involving vile experiments by the wizards Burner Stox and Crim Cropper, but this being a book in The Dragonkeeper Chronicles, this foreshadowing never leads to any kind of pay off in the story. (In point of fact, despite heavy foreshadowing, neither Burner Stox or Crim Cropper show up in the book at all).

The characters continue to drift along without any real urgency, despite the supposedly tight deadline they are on. As with previous books in the series, there's no problem so urgent that one cannot take time out to sit around and drink tea and eat cakes, or have philosophical discussions about how great Wulder is, or stopping to paint pictures. (Granny Kye, despite being an older emmerlindian, isn't very wise, but has the special ability to paint pictures that reveal a person's inner self. As with most fantasy elements of the book, this ability is pretty much useless in the context of the story being told and provides almost no benefit to her or anyone else in the book, despite it being harped upon constantly). This is, as we are told repeatedly, because Wulder has arranged everything according to his plan, and if one is intended to succeed in one's quest, it will turn out okay for you (and I suppose, if Wulder wants you to fail, you're pretty much screwed). So the characters pretty much just wander vaguely in what they assume is the right direction and hope for the best.

Along the way, random coincidences are seen as the hand of Wulder. Stittiponder, a blind orphaned street urchin who hears the wisdom of Wulder via voices only he can hear who had been very briefly introduced as a friend of Toopka's in DragonQuest, pops up thousands of miles away from where he was living on the streets in Vendela. Regidor returns to join Bardon's quest, although he arrives in response to a summons from Dar. Bardon literally stumbles across a gateway that transports him from the far northern tip of Amara almost on top of Kale, which pulls her into the quest serendipitously, and then drags along the wizards Fenworth, Cam, and Lyll as well as Librettowit, Taylaminkaydot, and Toopka, all of whom are introduced to the story using this incredibly clumsy plot device.

One of the few characters who Bardon and N'Rae actively recruit to join them on their quest to free her father, and one of the few who has specialized skills that could help them, is the mapmaker Bromptotterpimdosset, but since it turns out that he isn't theologically pure, they spend some effort trying to get rid of him. This illustrates that any semblance of plot that shows up in the story is clearly of secondary importance as far as Mrs. Paul is concerned. The important part of the book is providing "correct" moral instruction to the intended young adult audience, and that "correct" moral instruction is basically this: don't make any plans, because God will make everything work out for you, and don't associate with anyone who asks any hard questions, because they might pollute your mind with bad thoughts. Bromp serves up some straw men for Regidor and Bardon to shoot down, and is then converted to following Wulder when a random coincidence happens, because, of course, there are no random coincidences, there is only Wulder's plan.

So, the good guys eventually wander around enough and find the enchanted knights they were looking for by accident and then, well, they don't do much of anything for a while (remember, nothing is so urgent that you can't stop for a long lunch with tea and cake several times). Having spent no time at all trying to figure out how to break the enchantment until they found the knights, they meander about the abandoned fortress where they found them for a while until the answer drops in their lap. By that time, both the Pretender has shown up to cause trouble (but not too much trouble, since the characters are all under Wulder's protection and thus cannot be harmed), and Paladin shows up for a deus ex machina moment and everything is wrapped up in a nice bow - including the sudden revelation that Bardon is the son of one of the freed knights, Kale is the daughter of another, and Bardon and N'Rae are cousins (which conveniently solves the clumsy love triangle that Mrs. Paul has half-heartedly set-up between Bardon, N'Rae, and Kale in a manner reminiscent of the clumsy resolution of a similar love triangle in Return of the Jedi).

With the knights rescued, the random non-threats stop showing up and everyone is reunited with their family members. And in a huge anticlimax the wizard Fenworth permanently changes into a tree and Kale is dubbed the new Bog Wizard to replace him. Having milked about fifty pages worth of plot into a 393 page book, Mrs. Paul finally stops preaching the virtues of wandering aimlessly through life and expecting God, excuse me, I mean Wulder, to fix everything for you, and brings the turgid series of moral lessons to an end. With no real story, a pile of foreshadowing that never pays off, a completely random series of events, and a "moral message" that is pretty much a call to passivity, this book is definitely worth missing.

Previous book in the series: DragonQuest: A Novel
Subsequent book in the series: DragonFire: A Novel

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