Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Review: 'The Order of the Scales' by Stephen Deas

Again, this third book of the trilogy starts where the previous one left off, with the war still going on and the rogue dragon Snow still working to free more of her dragon pals from human slavery. The author's strength is in action, and there's no shortage of it here. The dragon/human battles are terrific, and Deas constantly reminds us of the dragons' vastly superior size and strength - the earth shaking as they land, the turbulance in the air when they take off, the heat and smoke when they spit flames, and the numerous ways in which they can kill humans without even trying. He captures the physicality of riding them brilliantly too.

Unfortunately, the action seems to be a substitute here for a coherent story. The one truly interesting story - the dragons, their ways and their history, and dealing with the escaped Snow - is muddied by various distractions, such as the ill-fated religious uprising, and the political in-fighting between the royal families which culminated in a disastrous war. This ensures that the final confrontation with the rogue dragons is a desperate battle for survival, but it's hard to believe that the dragon kings and queens can be quite so stupid. To be honest, everyone comes across as stupid, dragons and humans alike, which is a pretty nihilistic world view, it has to be said.

Creating realistic characters or relationships has not been the author's strongest suit in this series, but the surviving characters have built some history over the course of the trilogy, and thereby acquired at least a little depth. For some of them, in fact, there are the beginnings of something more profound. Kemir's wavering between suicidal bravado and survival at all costs never seemed totally believable, but it does give his character an edge of pathos. And, astonishingly, I had a lot of sympathy for Jehal in this book. It's bad enough to be shot at by your mother-in-law, but to be taunted for being a cripple by the man who put the crossbow in her hands is a bit rich. I'm still not quite sure whether he cares more for his wife or his lover, though. It seems to depend a great deal on which one is with him and available, and therefore boring, and which is believed dead or held prisoner, and needs to be avenged or retrieved, and is therefore more desireable. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

The ending is not one of those uplifting, heartwarming, victory-against-all-odds affairs. This is not really a spoiler, because anyone who has read the first two books will know all about the author's wanton destructive tendencies. Towards the end, there was a real question in my mind as to whether even one main character or eyrie or tower would be left standing at the finish. As I said in my reviews of the previous two books, I think it's a dangerous strategy for an author to wilfully kill or maim quite so many main characters, since it tends to disconnect the reader - what's the point in getting invested in a character who might die at any moment? And these are not satisfying redemptive deaths, or even (it seems) essential for the overall plot, rather they are simply throw-away moments, not even shocking after so many previous examples. Characters simply disappear without trace, or are presumed to be dead. Sometimes they turn out to be alive after all, only to die for real a few pages further on, or else they survive endless trauma only to be casually dispatched with hardly a mention. At least one disappeared without my noticing at all. Maybe this is all meant to be a Terribly Clever Commentary (life's a bitch and then you get squashed by a dragon, maybe?), but I got tired of it pretty quickly.

At the end there were enough dangling plot-threads to knit quite a long scarf. Like who did steal the white dragon, for instance. Actually, I thought we solved that in book one, but obviously I was wrong. How the magic spear works. Who or what the Silver Kings really are, and their relationship with the Taiytakei. Why they wanted dragons, and why (since they had some seriously powerful magic) they couldn't just take them. Actually, the whole magic system was a mess, a real hotch-potch of this and that, none of it made clear or apparently connected to anything else. It felt as if we needed another book just to join all the dots (assuming they could be joined).

And then there were the motivations: I was never very clear exactly why all the dragon-kings and queens were so hell-bent on war, and so ignorant (or perhaps careless) of the threat of the rogue dragons. I get that a lot of knowledge had been lost over the years, or had degenerated into myth and legend, and I also get the secrecy of the alchemists, but the whole point of a multiple realms arrangement is to prevent this kind of collective madness (checks and balances, and so forth). But maybe they were just too inbred after centuries of intermarrying. And as for the dragons, revenge isn't a very clever strategy either (and although they said that wasn't their objective, it's hard to think of another word for what they did). Once free of human enslavement, they should have been planning for their own future: finding safe, hidden eyries, and working out that the best way to provide themselves with a reliable food supply is to nurture the humans who breed the cattle. So not a lot of intelligence on display on either side.

There's a great deal to enjoy in this book. The battles are terrific, and if you like dragon action, this is definitely the series for you. The dragons are brilliant, actually. Daft, very often, but brilliant. The pacing is better this time, with less backstory to be shoehorned in, so that the action lurches page-turningly from battle to town burning to confrontation to battle again with hardly a pause for breath. There are also some laugh out loud moments, some deliciously spiteful exchanges and a wedding that ranks up there with one or two of George R R Martin's (no, no, not that one - and not that one either - Tyrion's, maybe, or Littlefinger's, in terms of gloriously mismatched but very funny couplings). This ought to have been a good four stars, but for me it never quite lived up to the promise of the first of the trilogy, and the muddled ending and the cavalier treatment of so many characters holds it down. If I'd cared much about any of the characters I'd knock this back to two stars out of spite at what the author did to them, but let's say three stars for the action and humour. And the dragons, of course. Gotta love the dragons.

No comments:

Post a Comment