Dragon Road by Joseph Brassey
Full Disclosure: While I pre-ordered this book (who wouldn’t?) I also received an ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review. This was so I could put up a review in time for Dragon Road’s release.
Joseph Brassey’s first book, Skyfarer, is among my favorite debuts of the past few years (for me, it was like Final Fantasy XII in book form) and while I will recommend Skyfarer without reservation (seriously, if you haven’t read it, go read it!) you … don’t actually need to read it to enjoy Dragon Road. It’s remarkable how well this sequel stands on its own. While readers who have read Skyfarer will have a deeper understanding of the characters and enjoy seeing them change and grow, Dragon Road actually works as a standalone story that doesn’t require extensive recall or knowledge of the first book. In an SFF market where sequels endlessly set up the next book rather than telling a complete story, a sequel that is largely self-contained is a welcome change.
In the world of Joseph Brassey’s Drifting Lands (where this book is set) the Dragon Road is a vast expanse of cloud-filled sky that exists between the floating islands humanity calls home. City-sized airships known as behemoths travel the mammoth distances between inhabited islands with flotillas of support craft, held aloft by magical metadrives as they bring trade and spread information. The bulk of Dragon Road (the book) takes place on one such behemoth, the Iseult, after her captain passes away without warning, and a competition arises on the ship to elect the person who will take his place.
Now, that’s not to say the behemoths are the only airships. There’s also smaller airships of all sizes, and one of the fastest is Elysium, the sleek and well-armed vessel the book’s crew of intrepid skyfarers calls home. Oh, and there are also enchanted swords. And portal spells. And magic-wielding armored knights that are basically super mercenaries. And Oracles and ancient cults and necromancy and something called the grandfather. Trust me when I say that word has never been creepier than it is in this book.
The plot of Dragon Road was twisty enough to keep me guessing, but straightforward enough that I was never confused. It takes just the right amount of time to unspool. The crew of the Elysium are a close, oddly-matched, and colorful cast of engineers, pilots, and warriors, and our POV characters (Aimee, an adventurous portal mage, and Elias, a villain turned hero) are uniquely talented badasses who often go up against threats that would eviscerate lesser heroes. Some would call this cliché. I call it fun!
Let’s be clear … airships and magic swords and badass heroes are common in fantasy, but they are fine as long as they are used well, as they are here. While I admit to loving all the cool magitech in Brassey’s books (one thing he does well is follow the “rule of cool”, where if something could happen in an awesome way, it happens that way) that alone doesn’t sell me on a book. What keeps me reading is Brassey’s characters, whose challenges and adventures are consistently entertaining, and the way he fits the exploits of his powerful heroes and villains into a framework of skillfully revamped fantasy elements.
If I had to pick a favorite element of Dragon Road, it would actually be the necromancy, particularly how Brassey revitalizes this rather worn out trope into something that feels powerful, repugnant, and, at some points, genuinely creepy. Raising the dead used to be terrifying before it was done in like, every fantasy book ever, but while necromancy plays a large role in the book, the way Brassey describes his necromancy (and, in particular, some freaky twists to the mechanics) makes it feel newly threatening. Basically, Joseph Brassey has Made Necromancy Great Again (okay, sorry, I had to) and I think this is a great example of how he twists common fantasy tropes in his books to make them feel fresh.
On a more writerly note, I also appreciated how well Brassey handled the melancholy that cripples Elias, a character who (like Kain from Final Fantasy IV and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was forced to do many despicable things for which he cannot forgive himself, despite not being in full control of his actions at the time. Constantly morose, always depressed POV characters can drag a story down if not done well. Fortunately, while Elias starts the book at rock bottom, he can’t really wallow. After Harkon Bright, the Elysium’s leader and Aimee’s mentor, is asked to mediate the contest over who will be the Iseult’s new captain, the tumultuous events that follow lead to Elias being too busy saving people and hunting things to be angsty.
By forcing Elias to fight for his friends and others when he doesn’t even want to get out of bed, Brassey found a natural way to make Elias focus on who he can still save rather than who he once murdered, allowing readers who knew him as a villain in Skyfarer to see him being a flawed and relatable hero in Dragon Road. Elias takes his first steps toward peace by fighting for those who saved him, and this felt believable without trivializing the trauma inflicted by the awful events of his past (seriously, he had it rough). Having sometimes stumbled in writing tormented characters, I really appreciated how well Elias worked.
To conclude, Dragon Road has cool battle scenes and political intrigue and ancient cults and living spirit engines, and there’s even a touch of romance thrown in for good measure – basically, all the elements that make a series pitched as “Final Fantasy meets Star Wars” a really fun read. If you like any of these things, you will like this book, and I eagerly look forward to my next adventure with the Elysium’s crew. You can read an excerpt from the book and purchase it here.