Monday, August 20, 2007

Dragon Master Trilogy - Chris Bunch

Storm of Wings
Knighthood of the Dragon
The Last Battle

In six words: mining lad becomes dragonrider, saves kingdom. This is exactly the kind of no-frills fantasy adventure that you'd expect from a series called Dragon Master - it's the Boy's Own Adventure school of writing, with a hero, some dragons and a lot of battles. Characterisation and even worldbuilding go by the board in favour of a blow-by-blow account of the war and our hero's rise through the ranks. You'd think that all this would earn the book a low score, but I actually really enjoyed it.

The plot is about as straightforward as they come. Hal Kailas is our hero, and we first meet him as a young boy dreaming of riding a dragon. Dragons are quite new to the world and no-one's really mastered dragon-taming yet, but when war breaks out between three neighbouring countries, the art of military dragonriding starts to become much more important. Hal is pressed into the army and eventually ends up in the dragon squad; through hard work and sound tactics he rises to positions of leadership, and avoids getting killed by the foolish strategies of the out-of-touch High Command... you know the sort of thing. There are few surprises, and thankfully few deus ex machinas too (in the first two books at least) - even Hal's uncanny ability to come up with winning tactics is based on his actual military experience and his previous failures.

The parallels with World War One are obvious, with dragons taking the place of the fledgling aeroplane technology - there's daring aeronauts, entrenched battles, over-the-top propaganda and even a Red Baron-like honourable-nemesis character on the enemy side; Bunch also slips in a sneaky Catch-22 reference. There is no Evil Dark Lord on the opposing team, just an ambitious and expansionist monarchy, which gives this a refreshingly low-fantasy feel; there is a certain amount of magic used, but it's nowhere near the centre of the story. This tale is all about the soldiering - looking after your mates, being tough in the face of adversity, making hard decisions, etc etc - and in that respect it works very well.

Characterisation is the series' biggest failing - Hal himself is the only one who achieves more than one dimension, and that only barely. His fellow dragonriders and other companions are reduced to cardboard cut-outs with one characteristic each - one is an ex-lord, one is an ex-sailor, one is a bully, one has a funny accent. Whether it is from this lack of character or from a particularly bad choice of names, I find it very difficult to remember what any of these minor players are called, even after reading about them for a thousand pages. The prose is workmanlike rather than actively bad - nothing fancy, it's just a tool for telling the story, though some of the choices of slang words are slightly bizarre (they include modern or exotic words like "heinie" and "wahine", which look out of place in the fantasy setting).

In the same way that soldier Hal has trouble with civilian life, Bunch also seems a bit lost in the third book about the war's aftermath, which contains more magic in than he can sensibly handle. However, it's still the same sort of story, and doesn't detract from the earlier books. This is much like the fantasy equivalent of Walter Jon Williams's Dread Empire's Fall trilogy - basic and unpretentious fare, that doesn't try to be anything special, and does a decent job of telling a simple story. If all you want is a series of battles, mild politicking, grim but amiable soldiers and a dash of heroism, you could do a lot worse than this trilogy.



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