Feb 12, 2017

Slow, Low Fantasy

A belated review of Cecelia Holland's Dragon Heart

Second in my "books I've been meaning to review for several years but never got around to it" is this low fantasy novel, which I read back then for three reasons: 1, Kim Stanley Robinson has blurbeb it quite favourably, 2. it's a stand-alone with less than 300 pages, and 3., there's a massive sea-dragon radiating power on the cover.

Dragon Heart is about a castle by the sea that has been ruled by one royal line for times immemorial. Well, calling them a royal line might be slightly exaggerated, sine they don't seem to rule much more than three or four villages, one of them by the shore right at the foot of the castle. However, after the king has lost a decisive battle against the big empire ruling pretty much everything around him, Marioza, the queen of Castle Ocean, is forced into marrying the Emperor's brother and thereby wrap her small, backwards realm into the much more civilised empire. Of course, she and her family are not willing to give up that easily ...

... such is the premise for a story that could have easily turned out as "a bunch of plucky noble heroes with a deep connection to their land and their people thwart decadent occupiers." Thankfully, it didn't. For one, the lords and ladies of Castle Ocean are a pretty shady bunch all on their own: Queen Marioza really is one evil b*** who, among other things, has cursed her youngest daughter at the moment of her birth to be mute (and also turns out to be indescribably badass). One of the other two daughters has an unsettling connection to birds, and she also seems to be quite mad in a disctracted way. One of Marioza's sons at least is classic hero material, which doesn't necessarily make him competent to deal with the political situation he finds himself in.

Then there's that "deep connection to their land" part. Yeah, that's definitely true - its just not something that seems very fortunate, but rather more like a family curse. Castle Ocean is haunted (in a quite mysterious and interesting way, with its living denizens doing at least some of the haunting), and whenever the forces of the land, nature and magic materialize, they show a dark, ruthless aspect. These enchanted lands obiously don't care a lot for the well-being of the rulers of Castle Ocean or their subjects - they just seem to use them as conduits. Consequently, there's at least one daughter who just wants out of all of this and has little interest in the fight "civilization vs. nature/magic" that Castle Ocean becomes a stage for.

And the two empire guys and their soldiers? Yeah, they're arrogant, ruthless and obviously don't have the slightest clue about what they are up against, but its still not that hard to empathise with them; magic is obviously a very subtle power in this world, and the two princes from the capital have little reason to believe in it. From their perspective, they have come to some old, draughty castle at the end of the world whose inhabitants are obviously barking mad, and they somehow have to deal with them and make this place civilized. Yeah, they're not nice, but you can definitely see where they are coming from.

What follows from that is a pretty Shakespearean and highly focused power struggle that is greatly enhanced by the subtle role that magic and the uncanny play in Dragon Heart. The latter is what probably impressed me most about the novel: Yeah, it's a medieval secondary world fantasy, but Holland really manages to turn magic back into something mysterious and deeply symbolic (probably because she usually writes historical fiction). While, as mentioned, magic in Dragon Heart is connected to the land and nature, it does not represent harmony with it. It's a deep, dark und largely uncaring power. Something similar goes for the relationship between the lords of Castle Ocean and their subjects: While it may seem at first that there's a strong bond of loyalty between them (leading to a small, quite believable military victory against the occupiers early in the book), the clear divide between rulers and subjects becomes obvious pretty soon.

Overall, I was really pretty impressed by this book. If I have to name one big flaw, I'd say that the three female main character's besides Lady Marioza (who gets far too little screentime in Dragon Heart), including the mute Tirza, who is kind of the hero of the book, seemed a little faceless to me - I have actually trouble remembering much about Tirzas two sisters (or was it just one?). They all share a certain ethereality, which makes them sometimes hard to tell apart.

But themactically and atmospherically, Dragon Heart is just the perfect pseudo-medieval slow burner for me - a gothic touch, an element of nature vs. civilization that doesn't paint either force in an all too flattering light, and a micro-cosm of Shakespearean power struggles that doesn't go over the top with the intrigue. It also features a damn cool boar hunt, which, if you ask me, is always a bonus.

Oh, yeah, the dragon? It's there. It's awesome and powerful and will probably lure you on the wrong track in the beginning if the book ... it's just another piece of magic, dark and dangerous and under the surface ... until it rises.

(If I got anything wrong or some descriptions seem a little vague, that's because I've read this book nearly two years ago. Really, I don't know why it takes to so long to write a review ...)

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