Book Review: “The Rage of Dragons” (by Evan Winter)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel ahead.

When I saw The Rage of Dragons sitting on the front table at Barnes and Noble some time ago and read the description on the jacket, I knew at once that I had to read it. So, I checked it out from my local library, sat down to read it, and found myself totally entranced. From beginning to end, the book is a ruthless–and at times brutal–exploration of the destructive (and redemptive) power of vengeance set in a world that teeters on the brink of absolute destruction.

When his father is killed at the order of the one of a villainous and callous noble, Tau swears that he will overcome his common blood and upbringing and become the greatest swordsman who ever lived. After he devotes himself to a life of the sword, he finds his loyalties–both political and personal–tested as he unwittingly becomes part of a much grander, and more dangerous, plot than he ever imagined.

The Rage of Dragons is epic fantasy in the vein of Brandon Sanderson, with a complex magic system and a hero who must work through significant trauma. While there is, of course, some attention paid to politics and the doings of the great, for most of the novel we are immersed in Tau’s world, which largely revolves around his training and the brutality that it entails. It thus also fits squarely within that tradition of epic fantasy that emphasizes the gory and violent side of the hero’s journey, and there were a few times when I had to put the novel down to give myself a breather from the unrelenting violence. This is not to say that A Rage of Dragons totally ignores the higher, more noble aspects of the epic tradition, only that it tends to access them through an emphasis on the redemptive power of violent action.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tau is an unpleasant character, but he is definitely one that is sometimes difficult to like. I don’t think this would have been such a significant issue in the book if we’d been given some other characters’ point of view but, for better or worse, the vast majority of the novel is told from Tau’s perspective. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that we don’t always get a macro-view of the events that are taking place in this fully-detailed world.

The novel is something of a slow burn, for while it reaches a crisis point quite quickly in the beginning, large swathes of the middle are dedicated to the grueling training that Tau undergoes as he attempts to exceed the limitations imposed by his lower-caste birth. These scenes are definitely not for the faint of heart, as Winter spares no detail his depiction of the brutality of this world. Sometimes, it’a a trifle difficult not to feel overwhelmed, both by the unrelenting depictions of violence in all of its forms and by the relentlessness of Tau’s suffering. That being said, by the time the novel really starts to heat up toward the end, you’ll find that you won’t be able to put it down. Indeed, the novel has one of the best-written climaxes that I’ve read in recent years.

For all of that, The Rage of Dragons does use Tau to show us the fundamental injustices of this world. For most men and women, Tau included (at first, at least), it is almost impossible to move beyond the limitations imposed by caste. While those in power insist that this is to help the Omehi people as a whole survive, Tau’s story reveals just how rotten and unjust the system has become and it leads one to wonder just how noble the Nobles truly are (the answer, I would venture to say, is not very much at all).

As with any great fantasy, The Rage of Dragons uses the hero’s journey to shine a light on issues that are significantly vaster and more complicated than one individual character. In this case, we are asked to think about one of the most uncomfortable (and, I daresay, intractable) issues facing the contemporary world: colonialism and its aftermath. The world of the novel is one in which the Omehi have, for centuries, sought to bring the hedeni (the “savages”) to heel, with increasingly limited results. This is a world that is confronted by a seemingly never-ending war, with a magic system–including a control of dragons–that is essentially dangerous and, quite possibly, destructive.

If I have one minor complaint, it’s that we don’t get the perspective of any of the absolutely fascinating and powerful female characters. While many of them–including Tau’s beloved, Zuri–do great things throughout the novel, we only rarely get their point of view. When we do, however, they crackle with intensity, and so I hope that Winter weaves in more female perspectives in sequel volumes.

By the end of the novel, things are in a state of unrest, and Tau has yet to recover from the wounds (both physical and psychological) that he has endured during the course of the novel. The entire realm has been plunged into chaos and bloodshed, a fragile peace between the hedeni and the Omehi has been shattered by the treachery of nobles. At this point, it remains to be seen whether Tau will be able to overcome his own limitations to become the savior of his country and his queen. There is definitely a lot of room for further plot and character development in the sequel volumes and I, for one, simply cannot wait to read them.

Winter joins a remarkable group of young writers of color who are broadening the parameters of epic fantasy. Given how racially problematic (and sometimes outright racist) the genre has historically been, these men and women are embarking on bold new journeys that challenge us to rethink our assumptions about what stories epic fantasy can and should be telling.

The Rage of Dragons marks an extraordinary debut from an extraordinarily talented new voice in fantasy.

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