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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 41: The Onyx Stone
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Dragonsong is is novel by indie author
Now straight up, this is not your standard fantasy novel, but rather a loose re-imagining of the broad Arthurian tale, specifically a tiny slice of it.
While the Dragonsong does center directly on the story of Merlin (more specifically, the story of Merlin and his daughter), it’s not directly a story about King Arthur and co, as is usually the case when it comes to modern Arthurian fantasy.
Rather, this story only inserts a few of the expected Arthurian trappings as a node to the literary influence, but eschews a typical modern retelling for a fresh narrative slice. And in completly breaking with the modern story form, the tale is recounted in the form of a bardic poem.
Now, straight up, I have a bit of a fondness for such an expressive (and woefully underused by modern writers) poetic format. Full disclosure: I spent an entire year studying Old English in university, most of which included trying to actually read Old English texts so different from modern English that the older language is nearly incomprehensible to modern readers.
I also took a full semester poetry class solely devoted to the study of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. So I do have an appreciation for this type of story format — and likely far more than the average fantasy reader.
Which brings me to this point: reading Dragonsong was like being dragged back into these college classes; not necessarily unenjoyable (if you are a fan of evocatively written poetry), but not easy reading either.
As such, the typical fantasy fan probably won’t have the patience or familiarity with the format to enjoy that lavishly constructed poetic story. But those who do will find something enjoyable.
By far, what I enjoyed most was the unique method of storytelling evinced in Dragonsong. The narrative format (as a bardic poem stuffed full of archaic pronouns and sentence construction) is a mixed bag, but I can’t deny it is effective at telling a story within a very specific medium.
As such, the author gets serious credit here for trying (and mostly succeeding at it) to write a different kind of fiction.
Forester surely does something different here from the horde of stereotypical indie authors, 99.9 percent of whom write yet another ‘inspired by’ (read, ‘shoddy knock-off’) of A Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, The Name of the Wind, The Black Company, or whatever well-regarded fantasy book that made a dent in the genre.
A whole lot different — so different in fact, I fear most readers won’t appreciate the effort that went into the book.
As such, what Forester did here in how he told this tale is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it stands out as original, but a curse in such that the format of the story is so archaic in format, style, and language that all but the most literary of fantasy readers won’t at all appreciate it.
Indeed, when you start reading the book, you’ll feel a bit like you are back in a college lit class, specifically, the part where you spend a semester studying epic poetry by the likes of John Milton or that class where you studied early fantastic fiction by Lord Dunsany.
The author opts to format his story in a very particular structure. There’s rhythm to length and flow of the words (most paragraphs are 4-5 words long) and the use of archaic pronouns ‘thee, thy, and thou’ are most abundance.
The work is highly inspired by Old English poems mated with the Arthurian tradition and the language and wording of each sentence is quite precise, evocative, and poignant — beautiful even. I can appreciate how much work the author put into crafting this story-poem. Because the format is so wildly different than any modern piece of fiction, it’s hard to properly ‘review’ the work in standard terms.
The tale itself is basic, though workable — a story of loss, tragedy, and redemption. By they end of the tale, all characters are forced to make horrific personal choices for the good of all.
However, it’s impossible to extract the story itself from the format, since the two are so intertwined. The language and descriptions are quite evocative, poetic even, which is no surprise given this is somewhat of a bardic poem (think Paradise Lost, Beowulf, the original Tales of King Arthur).
Truth be told, it’s very difficult for me to critique this book, given the format. The wordsmithing is excellent (the writer has a strong command of the English language, especially as used in its archaic form). It takes some real wordsmithing to hammer out a story into this format using archaic English.
As such, this is not a story so much as it is a poem, and I can’t really treat the review as a regular review.
I appreciate the poetic form, however, for the enjoyment of a good story, it’s a lot of work to extract the story out of the strict poetic format.
The shame his is that because of how the story is told, the overwhelming majority of casual fantasy fans would not appreciate this story, even though it’s quite a well-crafted tale and certainly one of the more original fantasy works I’ve encountered the past decade, especially given it’s an indie book.
This is a book where the format is just as important as the actual tale being told through that format. Without one here, you don’t really have the other in this book.
The story and the characters featured in it are the weakest part of the book: how the major story events are set up and how the main characters make some rather implausible choices just don’t resonate as realistic.
However, as is wont to happen in poems — and this book is more a poem than a novel — a lot of the characters do questionable things without much preamble or believable motivation. They just do it and the poem moves on.
I felt some of the major, plot-altering actions that happened in the story needed to be fleshed out a bit more. I found what many of the characters did didn’t really seem to mesh as realistic. Granted this is a poem and there’s a lot of creative freedom allowed, but I would have like to see the characters fleshed out a bit more, even given the restrictions of the format.
Because of the weakness of story and the lack of believable character motivation and actions, it’s hard to appreciate Dragonsong as anything but a evocative linguistic experiment paying homage to older works of fiction. Outside of the rich use of language and the rather novel poetic form, there’s not enough ‘there’ in the story to captivate.
Fortunately, it’s a fairly ‘short’ story as fiction goes, through as a strict poem it’s fairly long (though NOTHING in size compared to some of the classic epic poems like Paradise Lost).
How do you review a fantasy story-poem?
Dragonsong is an interesting work, in part because the story is written as a bardic poem and is so structured. If you are one who appreciates English lit ‘classics’, especially such lauded works as Milton’s Paradise Lost or you have a real thing for Old English, you’ll find a lot to love about Dragonsong. The author hits all those literary buttons quite accurately and does an effective job at crafting an Arthurian tale in this strict format.
But if you are the sort of fantasy reader who dislikes poetry with a limited attention span (which is to say about 95 percent of the average fantasy readers in 2016), then you likely won’t appreciate Dragonsong, nor even make it past the first chapter.
Still, for the small minority that will appreciate the book, then Dragonsong is one of those books that will take you back to another time and another era. The archaic wordsmithing, the rhythm of the language, and the tragic tone all work together to bring you something unique — if you can appreciate the format..
Sadly, this book won’t be appreciated by the casual fantasy fan. Simply put, outside of a college literature class, most readers won’t have the appreciation for an epic poem, even if it does include some of the more modern fantasy trappings of dragons, elves, and wizards.
If you were deeply drawn into the endless literary chasm that was Milton’s Paradise Lost, or you find yourself drawn to the older works of fantasy fiction such as The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Worm Ouroboros, then you’ll find a lot to love in Michael Forester’s Dragonsong.
I’m pretty sure that 99% of the modern (i.e. casual) fantasy readers who just love to sit back and enjoy the popcorn reading experience that is a Sanderson novel won’t get past the first few pages. Dragonsong is a challenging read between the archaic language and he strict poetic structure.
But if you want something completely different and to read a work soaked in poetry, where the telling of the story and the language used is far more important than the actual story itself, then pick this book of for something new.
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings -- cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings' laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings' mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings' power...if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don't find her first.
Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!