Master of Dragons

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Master of Dragons

Postby Athelassan » Mon Oct 28, 2013 12:03 am

The second book in the War of the Beard series (titled War of Vengeance because the editors are all politically-correct Dwarf-lovers).

The story follows on pretty much directly from The Great Betrayal; we open with Caledor II returning to Ulthuan after his duel with Snorri, and Sevekai's group still roaming. There's no overlap or recap here, it just ploughs on with the story, so definitely read TGB first if you want to know what's going on, and 'ware TGB spoilers from here on if you haven't read it.

First off, as I noted in the WAYR thread, the map has been changed, or, rather, corrected, and that was really heartening. A few more details have been added too, which is welcome. Given how closely the story follows TGB it would have been nice to have a recap, as in Blighted Empire, and it would also have been handy if the Dramatis Personae had been at the beginning, where I thought to look for it, rather than the end, where I only found it when it was a bit late. It would be nice if the Dramatis Personae were a little more fulsome, but it was ok.

Leaving aside production and looking at story and writing, essentially what we're covering in this book is the second phase in the war, from that duel to the Battle of Oeragor, which closes the book. On the timeline, this takes fourteen years, although the book doesn't really give that impression, and events actually seem to follow pretty soon after one another. Really, though, the subject of the book is in the title, and that's Imladrik himself, the eponymous Master of Dragons.

The two things crucial to getting this story right, then, are always going to be doing Imladrik well, and doing dragons well. I'm pleased to note that the dragons are done very well indeed: anyone who's read Dragonmage will know roughly what to expect, and anyone who hasn't can look forward to probably the best portrayal of dragons in WHF fiction so far, at least from a "friendly" perspective. Imladrik himself is also a strong character; in some ways almost reminiscent of a more benevolent Malekith. His might and authority are unquestioned, although he's reluctant to draw on his full power. His motives are unimpeachable but he's still surrounded by those jealous of him. And he does genuinely respect the Dwarfs in a way that most elves don't.

These elements form the central conflicts of the novel. Caledor sends Imladrik back to command the war against the Dwarfs because he's been persuaded that Imladrik (however modest his own ambitions) would make a powerful figurehead for a rival faction. Imladrik is bound by duty in every direction; he must obey his king, but he has no desire to prosecute a war against the Dwarfs - firstly because of his respect for them (much was and is made of his friendship with Morgrim both here and in TGB) but also because he knows the Dwarfs present much more of a threat than anyone else in Ulthuan seems to realise and that pursuing the war would be disastrous for the elves. He's also aware that to unleash the full might of the dragons - and to realise his potential as the "true heir" of Caledor - would be a decisive factor in the elves' favour, but he's terrified of the consequences of doing so.

The last of these is dwelt on perhaps a little over-indulgently although it never quite wears thin. Mr Wraight does a good job of portraying an individual of awesome power, confident without being arrogant, commanding huge respect from those around him, but wanting nothing more than to have nothing to do with any of it. His friend Liandra, another dragon rider (and returnee from TGB) is the most vocal of those urging him on, describing herself at one point as "his Sword of Khaine".

Of course, we all know that Imladrik's efforts to avert the war come to nothing. The way in which this was handled - a peace conference disrupted - was alright but also felt a little contrived and the stringing out of the frustration of the peace plans eventually starts to feel like it's getting in the way. A Dwarf perspective could have shored this up, if it's demonstrated that someone knows (or at least suspects) that the elven command isn't to blame for the latest atrocity (which, given the context, should have been clear) but reports it "straight" anyway for warmongering reasons, that would be fine. It's ok as it is, but not perfect. The book also struggles with pacing. The first 350 pages feel very natural, but then it suddenly accelerates as if it must reach a given point before the pages run out, and the last fifty pages are a pretty sudden and brutal conclusion to the novel. A little longer to give the story bit more space to breathe would have been nice.

That, really, is my key concern with the direction the story is headed. The first two books have basically ticked off the first two major events in the war, but it seems like we've skipped over some key events and/or characters. We see flashes of Caledor - and the intriguing Hulviar - but flashes only. I got the impression from TGB that we were to see some events from that from an elven perspective but in fact we get nothing. I also feel like we need some more characters if things are going to maintain their momentum. Salendor is here, as is another welcome newcomer (foolishly, it didn't occur to me he'd be in it, but of course he is) but I worry whether the remaining cast can sustain the story without taking more time in the next novel to establish them a bit. The next book will presumably see the Battle of Athel Maraya, then after that there's a long gap in the chronology before the next events of any note. I'm curious whether that space is going to be filled, or whether that space will be skipped and we'll head straight onto the Battle of Three Towers. If the former, we're going to need more characters; if the latter... well, hopefully that won't happen.

One thing to note about Master of Dragons is that it doesn't hold a candle to TGB in terms of exploration of the world and its culture. We learned a lot about the Dwarfs and the shape of Dwarf politics in TGB; other than some cool stuff about dragons there's nothing comparable here from the elven perspective or even really dealing with most of the Dwarf developments. From the elven perspectives, the Dwarfs are basically just one (grubby) mass, while the elves are little more than a collection of individuals. Having said that, I don't think that's remotely a problem. The book is about Imladrik and Imladrik is great; to have dwelt more on worldbuilding without substantially upping the page count would have detracted from the story, not added to it. "Legend" box thoroughly ticked.

There is another issue here, though, and that's that in a story that is so much Imladrik, the few passages of Morgrim feel a little intrusive. I'd almost rather the first book had been all Morgrim and this book had been all Imladrik and it would square nicely. It might present some problems when it comes to events where the motivation on one side is unclear to the other, but I don't think that would be a major issue, and some of the scenes here almost feel like they were written that way only for an explanatory note from the other "side" in the next chapter. Parallel, exclusive-PoV novels would have addressed it, I think.

Something which doesn't feel intrusive is Sevekai and Drutheira. By the end, admittedly, it does feel a little like we're just filling in the gaps in Drutheira's story between this one and <that other ToL series she appears in> but for most of the novel it's fine. And the direction of Sevekai's story is brilliant.

We're no closer to working out what was (or is?) going on with Kaitar and Drogor, if indeed we ever will. Drutheira diagnoses Kaitar as a "daemon" in an offhand way but hopefully that's not the last we'll hear of it. Drogor doesn't appear, and although he's alluded to (a few times both directly and obliquely) we learn nothing new about him. This is another reason I want to see more of Hulviar. I'd also like to see more of Caledor, because in his brief appearances here a good job is done of making him appear slightly more than the prat we might expect. The exploration of his character is really very interesting, including Imladrik's comments on it, and there's a flicker of indication that the Flame of Asuryan might not have been entirely mistaken in accepting him, but that it's all gone wrong since (evil counsel!). But moments and flickers is all. Hopefully this will be rectified as the series goes on.

So, overall: yes. Very good; not perfect, but not so far off it as to be annoying. Left me wanting more, not less, so frustrated enjoyment rather than actual disappointment. Really ought to be read in conjunction with TGB, but is very different to it, so if you didn't like TGB I wouldn't be put off. Looking forward to seeing more of Mr Wraight's work on the War of the Beard, and indeed his work on fantasy in general (although I gather that there's not much in the pipeline until this series is done).

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Re: Master of Dragons

Postby Xisor » Tue Nov 05, 2013 9:38 pm

Athelassan wrote:So, overall: yes. Very good; not perfect, but not so far off it as to be annoying. Left me wanting more, not less, so frustrated enjoyment rather than actual disappointment. Really ought to be read in conjunction with TGB, but is very different to it, so if you didn't like TGB I wouldn't be put off. Looking forward to seeing more of Mr Wraight's work on the War of the Beard, and indeed his work on fantasy in general (although I gather that there's not much in the pipeline until this series is done).


Thoroughly agreed. I rather loved the book and, in the main, very much enjoyed reading it. But it's not quite 'all there', there's little patches or bits missing (or, indeed, bits kept in) that felt a little... off-kilter.

In terms of 'exclusive narrative', I'd very much have enjoyed seeing a more thorough lack of Dwarf perspective, especially if it meant a little more screen-time for some of the side characters. Salendor's light screen-time was, more or less, an intriguing, subtle delight. Edging early-on towards the Snape-like in a Philosopher's Stone style. If only elves had moustaches to twirl...

Anyhow, I digress. I'd level lots of plaudits at the novel, but they're plain to see on reading! Hint to anyone else perusing the thread: read the damn novel; it's good!

The complaints mightn't be so obvious though, so I'm happier more freely talking about them, especially as they're not at all damning. As you mention, Ath, the insight into politics is a bit of a miss here, but it's also one that I think was suffered with (the strangely familiar) Imrik in Caledor: as characters they're almost too... rigid. Too... unelven.

In that light, the appreciation of 'elven things' beyond mere politics would've been nice to see through the Imladrik's lens. Imrik had been too rigid and that bored its way through (in more than one sense) the first half of Caledor. Chris's done a fine job of averting that here, but I'm still left feeling he's a bit too unelfy to really have been done flawlessly. And I think those little insights (art, indulgence in duty, a stronger disposition towards growing bored of things) were more critically missing here where including them mightn't have been such a bad or dangerous thing.

I can understand entirely why Imladrik's as dry as he is (indeed, so dry even any spark'll catch him, if he's not careful!), but I think there was a little room to go... closer to the edge. And getting it even closer would've perhaps revealed much larger, more engaging rewards. (Indeed, the 'latent, unelfing force' that's plainly exerted on Imladrik from Draukhain is a blatant factor here: that was really very well done. Perhaps a re-read would prompt this line of worrying to evaporate.)

---

Pacing, again, is a problem herein. I suspect that the structure of the novel itself played a stronger part: the time-skips were typically a little jarring when they occurred, for what only really constituted geographical hops. In terms of mental montages or character development, a lot seemed to happen in very brief chronological jumps, not in more extented... timeskips. In particular, Morgrim's change from "blimey, beaten" to "so: guerilla rampaging, lone gorillas warfare" was incredibly fast, especially for a dwarf. (It was, however, quite the speech, so I forgive it!)

Quite how I'd actually go about suggesting how to correct this sort of problem isn't at all clear to me. In any case, it feels a lot like it'd go this way.

---

Stuff What I Noticed: Dragons and Whatnot, Innit

Instead of populating the Quotes threads, I'll try'n contain some of it here.

"They can never be defeated," he said. "Not there, not in their own realm. I tried to tell my brother that."


It's strange to see it so bluntly put. And heartening, as what might be thought of as 'a bit more of a Dwarf fan'. Edges of that were lost a little later into the book. I'd also have been keen to see some of that line of thinking challenged - especially with the Hill King (or whatever his title was) from TGB - it would've seemed an obvious retaliation point. Similarly, for all that we know Dwarf holds to be largely impregnable bastions - were they always as secure as they are later? (Well, obviously not after the Time of Woes, but it'd have been a strange point if the Dwarfs were also on a strong learning-curve of escalation in siege warfare during this war. The question, perhaps obvious in hindsight, would plainly be: where did the Dwarfs get their siege tactics knowledge from? Who'd been seriously besieging them before - daemons? If Dwarf holds had, paradoxically, been more magically impregnable but actually (more) starkly vulnerable to actual bodies-waving-swords... well, it's an interesting route of thought, but perhaps a bit difficult to articulate in writing whilst writing directly about Imladrik himself.)

Mortals, snorted Draukhain contemptuously. Modesty is perverse. Revel in the superiority you have been given.
Imladrik laughed again. And be more like you?
It would improve you.
It would improve my mood.


Despite what I said far above, the earlier 'nothing happening' section of the novel really does have some excellent little observations and establishing sequences. This was a particular favourite, as it also evoked quite deeply a little of what I recall from Dragonmage. (And, oddly, catches very tangentially between both the end of MoD and the end of The Hour of Shadows.)

I approve.

Thus, in relation, I especially enjoyed this little gem of dialogue. Basic, but wry in just the right manner:

Caradryel smiled. "None of them are as good as me. Not remotely."
"You are not short of confidence."
"Modestry is a waste of everyone's time."
"I know someone who would agree with you," said Imladrik.


We are there as we were before you entered the world, sang Vranesh. Before the shaan-tar came to tutor you, before strife came from the outer dark. The eldest of us remember. I will see them again, the names of legend.


Again, a simple piece, but a massive point in favour of Chris Wraight above the vast bulk of the ToL stories so far. That is: they actually acknowledge that there was a time before Aenarion fought the daemons in a less-than-purely-theoretical way. In this, Wraight's elves and dragons at least, seemed to have a bit more... permanence to the whole thing. There was a sense that whilst 'historic history' starts at whenever the Old Ones arrive, there's nevertheless a within-(some's)-living-memory, more deeply personal history from before then.

That it dovetails nicely with the sense of the dragons, as per Dragonmage, being more than just monsters, well, I loved that. Particularly explicit with respect to Dragonmage and spoilers therein, and a hugely relevant-yet-subtle subtext to the novel was, I think, this is worth musing on:

Spoiler: Basically this: as per the maxim presented in the novel, "you become the dragon, the dragon becomes you". The dragons, despite being harnessed by the Dragontamer, haven't actually been properly shackled to the will of the Elves. Indeed, in some respects, they're perhaps unconsciously moving things along to their own designs.

If, as suggested, they ruled the Lizardmen prior to the Old Ones, the dragons have a vested [vengeful] interest in seeing all the works of the Old Ones fall to ruin. They have the option of waiting - but they're not always patient creatures given to slumber. Indraugnir bore Aenarion to Khaine, afterall.

Whilst the Elves might rule themselves, the will and desires of the dragons still might be... irrepressible. Start untold nonsense with all the races of the Old Ones, but go to sleep and let them 'finish' it.

I think there's candidates there for the 'Great Game', except that their interest is in tipping over the gaming-table and hoarding it all, bodies of opponents, playing-pieces, the games-hall... al of it. Dragons gonna dragon?



But that's a more casual bit of tinfoil hattery. It's certainly not an unnoticed effect in the book though: both Liandra and Imladrik are immensely influenced/altered as characters by their dragon's dominating effect on their minds. One wonders why the dragons only sing to the strongest...? Perhaps they simply don't play with inferior pieces.

---

And, finally, perhaps a dig at Nick Kyme?

"If we had a hundred dragons then we could consider engaging them, but even Aenarion did not command such numbers."


:lol: :P
"When my housemate puts his bike in the middle of the living room floor, I find that inordinately jarring, annoying and rude, but for me to refer to it as "genocide" would be incorrect." -Ath
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