Sunday, 17 February 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Mark of the Dragon Queen' by Katie W Stewart

I rather enjoyed 'Treespeaker' by the same author, so I was more than willing to try this. It turns out to be very different. The setting is a fairly generic one - a small town ruled by a lord, with doctors and horse-drawn buggies and a stratified society, but also with wizardry and dragons. Magic is tightly controlled in this particular realm. The main character, Kira, is living a quiet life with her widowed father, a teacher, when he uses magic to save a child's life, breaking an oath and condemning himself to death. The story follows Kira's attempts to rescue him from his fate.

There is an interesting story in here, and the background was very intriguing. The use of magic, how and when it can be used, the crystals which somehow enable its use to be monitored, the way it operates elsewhere, the agreement with the dragons - all of this was rather nice, and I would have liked to know more. But for me things fell apart with the characters, particularly Kira.

Now, there's no immutable law that says that every female main character in fantasy has to be feisty, resourceful, independent-minded and spirited. It's perfectly possible for a heroine (or hero, for that matter) to be timid, nervous, awkward, reclusive or shy, and still bravely do whatever the plot calls upon them to do. But what really doesn't work is stupidity, and Kira, it has to be said, is stupid. I thought at first she was just very young - everyone calls her 'child', and she acts like one, too. People treat her as if she's some delicate flower who has to be protected from the wind at all costs. Initially I guessed she was about six or so, but no - turns out she is actually fifteen. Even having lived a very sheltered life, she should be more sensible than she appears here.

First she is startled and falls over while escaping with her father, getting herself injured and causing him nobly to sacrifice himself so that she can be treated. Then she droops around doing nothing very much for several months, being looked after by helpful friends. Then when she thinks a former student of her father's, Arun, is going to rescue him, she decides to tag along. Why? What can she possibly hope to achieve? She has no skills, no magic, no artefacts which could conceivably make any difference, and she's so helpless, she's only likely to get in the way. As she does, in fact. When he (very sensibly) tells her to go home, she follows him anyway and manages to fall in the river. And so on. She isn't the only one making irrational decisions in this book (Arun is not without blame here, and Kira's father isn't always sensible either) but Kira is the worst. Being determined is an admirable quality, but not without a modicum of common sense.

The other characters are either good, kind people, or thoroughly bad people, with no in between, and sometimes without an obvious reason for being bad. The woman who is nasty to Kira, for instance, because her father has been sent to Verebor prison - why? In a small town, where Kira has grown up, there would surely be a great deal of sympathy for her situation, and people would rally round to help. It's designed to make the reader sympathise with her, perhaps, but it just seemed unrealistic to me.

This may seem very critical, but it's purely a personal reaction. There's a good story in here, and plenty of action. For those who don't mind a heroine who starts off rather limply and (I assume) becomes more self-sufficient later, this would work very well, and there are some interesting details to the magic system and background to be uncovered. I enjoyed the author's 'Treespeaker', a more unusual story than this, so it's not the author's writing style that's the problem here, but purely the extreme wetness of the main character which grates on me. I got about a third of the way through before giving up. One star for a DNF.

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