THE RAGE OF DRAGONS by Evan Winter (Book Review)
The Good: The titular dragons aren’t the only things that come raging out of the pages thanks to the triple-threat of people, ‘places’ and plot, making this Africa (Xhosa) inspired epic an unforgettable read.
The Bad: For me? Nothing. Seriously, I love this book. I have seen some people getting put off by the ‘simple revenge plot’, all the fighting, or the ‘mash-up of cultures’, but honestly, I had so much FUN reading this book I didn’t notice!
The Ugly Truth: The Rage of Dragons is an explosion of characters, cultures and creativity. It blazes a trail to the new and exciting, while also stoking the fireside nostalgia of the fantasy ‘legends’ I grew up reading. With just this one book, Evan Winter joins my personal pantheon of fantasy gods and goddesses as a titan to be reckoned with. 11/10 – all the stars!
The Full Review:
Ever read a book that felt as if it was written just for you? The Rage of Dragons was this for me.
Warning: No, not a spoiler warning. This is a HYPE warning. I’ll be your pilot today, so please sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride, because The Rage of Dragons IS AMAZING.
Tired of the same old fantasy? Read The Rage of Dragons. Want something new and exciting? Read The Rage of Dragons. Are you still reading this? You shouldn’t be, because you should be reading The Rage of Dragons!
Excuse me. Right, where was I…
A HUGE thank you to Orbit for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review, and the heart palpitations I experienced as a result (though they weren’t to know that when they sent it).
The Rage of Dragons is Evan Winter’s debut novel, and the first novel in The Burning quartet. Originally self-published, it has since been acquired by Orbit, and it was this traditionally published version that I read (and I am STILL kicking myself for not having discovered this earlier).
The Rage of Dragons is the story of Tau, a lesser of the Omehi people, set in a world that is as vibrant as it is violent. In the caste-based system, as a lesser, Tau’s place is to serve the Nobles, and as a warrior in training, he will be sent to fight the native ‘savages’ that vie for control of the country his people – the Omehi – occupied to escape The Cull in their homeland. But Tau doesn’t want to fight; he wants to live in peace, not war, with the woman that he loves.
And when those whom Tau lives to serve betray him, he starts his own personal war, one of revenge, and one that could very well cost him his soul. But there’s more than just his own fate at stake as he decides what matters most: vengeance, or justice, not just for him, but for all Lessers who have been oppressed by the higher castes.
Boiling the book down to its bare bones, the plot at first glance is quite simple. Archetypal ‘farmboy’ sets out on a quest for revenge after the loss of a loved one, whilst all around him the ‘good vs evil’ fight for survival plays out, which of course he has a part in, like it or not. Oh, and ‘childhood love interest’ gets caught in the crossfire of dragons strafing the proverbial battlefield.
The plot might sound familiar, but the STORY of Tau Tafari is different to any hero’s journey I have ever tread the pages of. The start is slower than the rest of the book, and predictable a la ‘young man trains to be a warrior,’ but it gets to the first twist in short order, and from there things really pick up. Once I reached the point of no return for Tau, circa 30%, there was no way back for me either. Time permitting, this is the type of book that I could read in one sitting. I was hooked.
As a character, Tau is one of my favourite protagonists. He has his faults, which if anything are more enthralling than his strengths. He’s the type of character you champion the cause of. The underdog/lone wolf that doesn’t know when to give up. He’s not 100% the strong and silent type, but his bite is certainly more dangerous than his bark.
Other characters include love interest Zuri (who is so much more than just ‘love interest’ but I won’t divulge more without going into spoilers), Tau’s ‘mentor’ figure Jayyed, fellow lesser Uduak, and rival Kellan. The entire cast more than ticks the box of who’s who, going so far as to break the mould and carve out their own place in the world.
Which brings me to the world(building)! This is an African (Xhosa) inspired fantasy with flavours of European and Asian storytelling. I know that this hasn’t worked for some readers and reviewers, but for me I found it to be really well balanced and imaginative. The magic system especially is wholly original. Imagine: dragons conducting strafing runs over a battlefield on which sorceresses send warriors ‘spiritually’ to the underworld, while Hulk-like behemoths tear chunks off the enemy formation.
I have seen some people get turned off by what they deem is a ‘simple revenge plot’, or ‘too much fighting’ or the mash-up of cultures. My thoughts on this? While revenge plays a big part in Tau’s motivation, it’s the emotion and growth that turns the character-plot into purpose. The fighting is fantastic, especially when combined with the unique magic system. And no matter the real world influences, I really enjoyed the originality and authenticity of staying true to the ‘reality’ of this fantasy world.
Taking a pause here, if it sounds like a lot of this review covers fighting and warfare, that is because this book contains a lot of fighting and warfare. If that is your ‘thing’ then great, this book is for you! But if you are looking for something more, then this might not be your first pick – BUT, seriously give it a shot. There is a lot more to The Rage of Dragons than meets the eye.
I watched Avengers: Endgame the same week as reading this. Needless to say, it was a very emotional week. Before then, I can’t remember the last time something so EPIC left me feeling so emotionally charged and then exhausted afterwards. There were scenes in both that were so intense I had to wipe away a tear. In The Rage of Dragons, around the 50% mark there is a section about ‘Tau’s Path’ (you’ll know it when you read it). When one of the characters quotes something Tau has said, I punched the air in excitement, before remembering I was in a hospital waiting room and that people could see me. Oops.
Multiple themes run throughout The Rage of Dragons. Love, loss, betrayal, birthright, revenge, redemption – but for me, something that really stood out was cost, namely the cost of your actions. And not just the cost to others/society/the world, as a result of your actions, but also the personal cost. Every choice has a consequence, but behind that is a cost, which must be paid whether you choose to accept the price or not.
Speaking personally, as this book did touch me personally on the theme of cost, The Rage of Dragons embraces what it means to be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder and made it an accessible topic in a way I hadn’t read before. Without getting ‘heavy’ on the topic, PTSD is something that a lot of people have, and have had throughout history. It affects people differently, for different reasons, and is entirely individual to them based on them as a person. A bit of a taboo subject until recently, it has become more widely acknowledged (and dare I say it, ‘accepted’) in recent years.
In The Rage of Dragons, Tau makes certain choices that come with a cost. Without realising it at the time of deciding, this cost is far greater than he expects. It changes how he sees and interacts with the world. Kind of a ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ type of thing. But where Peter Parker can don the mask of Spiderman to fight supervillains, assured that his two separate identities are (mostly) separate, Tau Tafari can’t. Tau’s villains stay with him as he lives and breathes. Tau’s demons in his day to day aren’t really there (though they are, arguably, in the spirit world), but to him, in his eyes, they are. I really identified with this as a form of PTSD, and whether this was intentional or not, I think it’s perfect. Its not just a nice ‘add in’. It’s part of who Tau is, and it makes him more real for it.
On the note of Spiderman, I have to admit the ‘Game of Thrones meets Gladiator’ doesn’t really work for me (bear with me, this isn’t a negative). I realise that putting the names of heavy hitters on a book/film/series is going to draw attention from outside the immediate audience/fanbase, but The Rage of Dragons isn’t Game of Thrones or Gladiator. Yes, there are dragons, and revenge. But The Rage of Dragons is so much more than that.
And with Game of Thrones now finished, the question of ‘what next?’ continues to be asked. Answering ‘THIS!’ (TRoD) makes sense, but in the same breath I feel that it would be wrong of me to do so, because TRoD isn’t GoT. Why? It’s The Rage of Dragons, that’s why. And true to its own voice, The Rage of Dragons is its own story. It shouldn’t be in the shadow of Game of Thrones, not when it deserves to bask, nay, to blaze, in the glory of its own fire.
I feel that, in a way, The Rage of Dragons is to fantasy what Black Panther is to blockbuster movies (note: the use of ‘blockbuster movies’ and not superhero movies, as African stories and storytellers are woefully underrepresented in all media forms). The Rage of Dragons, IMHO, is a story that will open people’s eyes and minds as they hadn’t been before. It’s not the first of its kind*, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it will be a gateway fantasy for a lot of readers to a much bigger world than the one they knew.
(*That’s not to say that there aren’t any other fantastic African influenced fantasies out there; to mention but a few: N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology (anything by Jemisin should be considered required reading), Lost Gods by Micah Yongo, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (Young adult), Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, and I would be remiss for not including Tade Thompson’s SFF titan Rosewater.)
So if I had to think of an ‘x meets y’ comparison for The Rage of Dragons, I would say it’s Black Panther meets The Poppy War (by R.F. Kuang). Not because of the street-cred kudos that would earn it, but because these two distinct works embrace their separate cultures, the stories of the people within them, and bring them to life in such a way that is so fantastical it’s real. And if a writer can take something fictional and make it seem real, tangible, and something you want to believe in, then that is the biggest compliment I can think to give as a reader.
Before concluding this review, because I’m already rambling, and I could go on about this book all day, I have to add: we need more #ownstories from POC, minorities and underrepresented groups. We want them, but just as importantly (if not more so) we need them.
In closing, The Rage of Dragons has it all. A hero’s journey that could easily stray to the dark path of the anti-hero; a magic system built with rules and raw power with still room enough to surprise you; and characters so full of life and heart that when they hurt, you bleed, both inside and out (from the papercuts you get trying to turn the pages fast enough to find out what happens next).
And I for one can’t wait for the next instalment.