WINDWARD by S. Kaeth (SPFBO 7 SEMI-FINALIST REVIEW)
Welcome to the Fantasy-Hive’s SPFBO 7 SEMI-FINALIST WEEK.
Just to remind you our team of five judges, me (Theo), Belle, Peter, Scarlett and Calvin have spent the last five months:
- Sampling our batch of thirty self-published fantasy books to (at least) the 20% mark
- Identifying twelve* worthy quarterfinalists
- Running six* quarter-finals, a couple of which went to extra-time, to choose our six semi-finalists
- All five of us reading all of the chosen-semi-finalists
- All five of us putting the six semi-finalists in our own personal rank order
- Adding up those rankings to decide which of semi-finalists we will put forward to the next stage of SPFBO competition, joining nine other finalists exposed to the opinions, judgements and scorings of our fellow SPFBO blogs.
And in the second outing of the Fantasy-Hive’s SPFBO 7 SEMI-FINALIST WEEK we come to the next semi-finalist that missed out on being placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd.
We were fortunate in having a strong and yet very varied selection of books to look at this stage of the competition. While we could only pick one, each of them had much to recommend them depending on the reader’s preferences and interests. So read on to see if our next semi-finalist to fall might nonetheless have something that sparks a connection for you.
When dragons fight, mountains weep.
In nests high in the mountains, dragons and dragonbonded share their lives, thoughts, feelings, and ambitions.
Palon and her partner, the dragon Windward, are renowned among their nest for their flying skill. Their days are filled with everything she loves, especially riding the wind. Even being tasked with teaching their way of life to Tebah, a rebellious newly bonded teenager, can’t bring her down too much.
But when treasures from the dragons’ hoards are found in Palon’s collection, her idyllic life comes crashing down. She battles to prove her innocence, while her every move is cast as further evidence against her. Tebah’s suspicion, homesickness, and defiance would be frustrating even in easy times. With Palon in the spotlight while her rivals smear her name at every turn and stir up plots of revenge, her teenage charge’s behavior proves dangerous.
Dragon tempers shorten, and challenges and disputes shake the ground. Palon will have to trust more than just herself if she hopes to once more own the sky.
The cover is a striking portrayal of Palon and Windward which does catch the eye with its composition and use of contrasting colours. I only noticed one typo, (scarring used, where the context would suggest scaring) which is a good measure of the care taken over editing. These things matter and self-published should never mean amateur. The prose had some nice lines but – for me – didn’t soar quite as high as the dragons it depicted. Sometimes in the bid to avoid a cliche like say ‘his voice dripped with sarcasm’ you can end up with a phrase that still doesn’t quite work like this one ‘sarcasm coated his tone.’ However, although there were a few places where the phrasing felt a little rough, in general the writing carries the story along effectively and at good pace.
I quite like the cover, the art style stands out against current trends, but the overall effect is a bit too 2D, and the title gets a little lost against the artwork. I found the prose lacked consistency – there would be large sections when it flowed really well and kept everything moving, and others when it felt a little stilted and jarred me out of the story. Overall it was fine, but didn’t wow me.
The cover of this novel is of matt finish showing a red dragon and dragon rider in mid-flight. The overall colors are a bit subdued perhaps to give it an airy feel. I find these choices to be great, though the style, close to hand-drawn, is missing a bit of pizzazz and falls slightly flat. An attractive frame or a way to make the title pop would be something to suggest. However, the dragon looks great in detail and the book has a nice feel in hand. There is an index in the back of Dragons and their Bonded counterparts, which is helpful, and I did enjoy the writer’s prose. It created a sense of closeness to dragons as I have not read before.
I thought the cover was very nice. My only complaint about it would be the typesetting/font for the title and author name. Both end up looking fairly flat, making the cover lack a certain pop that one might expect in traditionally published cover designs. Like Theo, I found the prose to be fine without ever really soaring. The novel seemed well edited to me and I felt like–for the most part–the prose got out of the way of the story. I also found the pacing very nice.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Funnily enough, despite my initial reservations, Tebah – the objectionable teenager – is the one I warmed to most. I guess that’s because she is the disruptor challenging the power structures and strictures of the dragon nest which echoed my own initial feelings about Windward and the sense of a surfeit of dragons, although I know some of my fellow judges are comfortable with much higher dragon tallies than I am. I did feel Tebah was the most obviously changed character – transformed from stroppy teenager to someone more in tune with the life she had inadvertently chosen. I did find Palon’s initial interactions with Tebah grated a bit in the rather blunt instrument of attempting to “persuade by simply repeating the same thing.” However they both mellowed in a way that felt more convincing. Ultimately I was a bit disappointed that Tebah did not end up having more agency and impact in the story’s resolution though.
I have to admit I never really warmed to any of the characters. A few times I felt myself cheering for Palon or Tebah, and then there would be another long section of repeating the same arguments and I’d be mostly irritated all over again. I did appreciate the character development though, especially Tebah’s, although like Theo, I was disappointed she didn’t have a larger part in the plot’s resolution.
I was not a fan of Tebah, I must say. I just didn’t connect with her at all. I did wonder about her rather quick drop-in presence to the story and never really trusted where things were going with her. The focus on her ill temper was a bit off putting to me. I did enjoy Palon and Windward, of course, their opening scenes were fantastic, and over time their characters transformed through different challenges and had to overcome a great trial that tested their bond.
One thing I really enjoyed were the overall name choices for many of the side characters/dragons, like Laetiran, bonded to Fire Sand, Aturadin bonded to Scorch Frost or Stone Eyes, the highest-ranking dragon in the nest, or Black Cloud and Cave Song, both unbound dragons, or Sea Rim and Providence Eye!
My favorite character was probably Palon, though Tebah grew on me as the story went on. One of the things I liked about Palon is how she is so passionate about this world/culture that she loves. Tebah plays an interesting foil for this, and I think that’s why I started to like her more as the novel went on. The two sort of play off one another. Palon, at times, is overly blunt and demanding whereas Tebah is incredibly unwilling to accept reality and seems not to understand how offensive her subterfuge is to the culture she is entering. It makes for fascinating by-play and character development as the story goes on. From the early pages I cared about Palon and the other dragonbonded. While I’ll admit that Windward spends a lot of time in the opening setting up the world, I think it was actually the characters that kept me reading once I got into the book.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
I felt that this was a story where it felt like worldbuilding came first, then characters, then plot – in the author’s priorities. To that extent it featured a few moments where supposedly intelligent people (and dragons) made poor decisions – which always irritates me. There was also a very non-specific injury to Palon’s arm which annoyed me as this “bad arm” became an excuse to limit Palon as much or as little as the author wanted. Was it broken or not? Where did it hurt? Are we talking torn shoulder ligaments, dislocation, whatever? A break in a human arm takes six weeks of immobility to heal properly. In this context the adjective “bad” was as frustratingly uninformative as the rightly much maligned “nice.”
The central mystery of the thieves did not have a significant twist with the obviously bad bully ultimately playing out as the bad bully in the best traditions of school dramas. However, I felt more comfortable with that when I realised that the driver of the story was not the mystery but the power struggle between the dragon bonded, which reflected the very hierarchical driven nature of their society and the constant jostling for position. When the thievery was seen as simply a dangerous extension of that power struggle, the whole story began to feel better balanced.
That also to a degree softens my other plot criticism of the story’s denouement which felt a bit like the Raiders of the Lost Arc plot paradox – namely that if Indiana Jones had stayed at home doing decent research rather than grave robbing, the film’s ending would have played out in exactly the same way with (Spoiler alert) the Nazi’s getting possession of the arc, opening it and being destroyed by it. In a similar way, the efforts to investigate the thefts and prove who was behind them all prove irrelevant as Windward’s denouement comes down to a trial by combat where victory is deemed sufficient proof in and of itself. However, in the context of a story about power struggles, and the disruption to a community, maybe a simple logical proof of guilt would not have been enough to rebalance the nest dynamics? Alongside that, there were some interesting non-thief related plot digressions that did enrich the journey towards the story’s climax. So, this is a book that grew on me in its second half more than it had in its opening.
Like Theo, I found it a lot more enjoyable when read through the lens of the power struggles between various characters, but that did not lessen my disappointment that there were no twists in the mystery. For me, the relationship between the characters kept me reading more than the plot did, for all that I didn’t particularly like any of them. I was curious to see how and if they would grow into ones I did like, and while that didn’t happen, it was still interesting to read.
I have to agree with some of Theo’s pointers there. I too was a bit confused over Palon’s arm and the point about setting up the world and plot first with the insertion of characters. It made some moments feel unbelievable or less natural in a sense…made to fit. The first part of the novel read better to me and held my interest more than the latter despite the intense power struggles and intrigue that followed towards the end of the novel. I too wished that there was more behind the stolen artefacts, but I did enjoy the principal idea behind their treasures. One thing I picked up on were the transitions between scenes. Either I missed things along the way via reading, or did it take the characters very little time to make it from point A to B in certain moments? Not having a geographical sense in a way about their area, it seemed to take no time at all even for those ousted to be at the center of the plot/setting in no time repeatedly.
I feel like the structure and pacing of the story worked very well. I found myself speeding through the novel and had a hard time finding places where I wanted to set the novel down and take a break to accomplish other things. I do have to agree with Theo that the story feels like it’s one where worldbuilding comes first, then characters, and the plot is a rather distant third. While there is a plot, and I did find it interesting enough to keep me reading, much of the tension came from characters making pretty poor decisions, particularly leaders who ought to know better. That’s always something that frustrates me in novels. For instance, the lack of trust the nest shows towards Palon is sort of maddening, given that logic and rational reasoning seem to favor her throughout the novel. Of course, we’re also seeing things from her perspective, so maybe this is an instance where a different character’s perspective might have helped the story along? I’m not sure, but for me there were definitely moments where the plot didn’t quite work. However, I was engaged enough with the characters that I moved past those moments pretty quickly.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
I think this is definitely the story’s strongest aspect. The nature of the bond between the dragons and their humans is the thread that holds not just dragons to humans, but holds the whole story together. As others have noted – the sense that the humans take on dragon characteristics in their psychology (hoarding collections/caches) and rivalries feels like a fresh take on the dragon plus companion trope.
The other feature of the dragon nest as a close knit and socially fragile community also helped in developing a compelling vision of a small world in crisis, and Kaeth does well to build a story around those tensions of individual and social conflict and connectivity.
The worldbuilding is definitely the strongest and most consistent aspect of the book. I loved the structure of the nest, and how that influenced various relationships, as well as how it influenced how the bonded think and behave.
I was disappointed by two things though: that a second nest was introduced so late in the story, as I would have liked to see more about how they interact with each other, and that because the plot was so focused on the internal dynamics of the nest, we didn’t get to see much of the rest of the world, despite it setting the scene in the first chapter so beautifully.
I enjoyed the close-knit community of the dragons immensely. It was great to be within and be part of a dragon colony, learn the hierarchy and history. The way of caves set up to hoard caches by the individual dragons and bonded riders was great. Sleeping arrangements, meals, bonding, leadership and boundaries were set with attention to detail and gave a true sense of community. I enjoyed the idea of humans taking on dragon-like characteristics in way of thoughts and feelings, and the “dragon family” intricacies and traditions created a well-structured world to me.
I really found the interplay of the nest as a close knit community that was also incredibly fragile to be really interesting. In fact, I’d say that what Kaeth does in building a believable community that feels close and yet fragile, that feels human and yet incredibly animal is really where this story shines the most.
What might be most interesting to me about the worldbuilding here is that it doesn’t feel like a lot of the fantasy worldbuilding out there. Typically when we think of worldbuilding we think of the political situation, or the way magic works in a world, or the impact of religion, or maybe the geography, or even the flora and fauna of a world. But in the case of Windward we get a much smaller, more intimate portrayal when it comes to worldbuilding. We see this nest, this community of people and dragons who have been bound together and who are in a surprisingly vulnerable time. There is magic, certainly, and there are social issues within the nest that could be called political, but it just feels so much more down-to-earth than all that. It was really fascinating and enjoyable to read.
Quotations that resonated with you
There were a few nice lines that caught my eye.
“But dragons rarely actually fought. When Dragons fought, mountains wept.”
Or this one reflecting a quiet moment between Aturadiun and Palon, which reveals how far Palon is driven by a cultural abhorrence of showing weakness.
“Between the two of them there was no need for defenses. They could be weak.”
It’s a bit long, but the chapter this quote comes from is probably my favourite in the whole book. Tebah has run away, and Palon has gone after her. I quite think Palon has more growth and insight in this section than any other.
“I love my nest, my family. The family I chose. Even if there’s chaos and even violence right now, with bonds strained by grief, I still love them. Even though I’m injured and Windward is hiding from the anger of the others, I’d still choose them. Because when reason prevails again, and it will, they understand me better than anyone. When I get mad and that anger makes me stupid, they understand. So I understand them in return. And Windward— no one could ever understand me so completely, love me so unconditionally, and the same’s true for him. If he could never fly again, even then I wouldn’t leave him, and I know with the same certainty that I know the sun will rise tomorrow that Windward feels the same about me. If it came to it, we would give up everything for each other.”
I enjoy settings and descriptive writing, so here are a few I liked:
“Whispers rose to fill the air like startled birds as dragonbonded emerged from the tunnels, eyes darting about and hands fluttering with the unease that spread through the nest.”
“But so many injuries scored his scales that sorrow and wrath buried the short-lived joy.”
“Conflicting, confusing emotions roiled in her, possession warring with revulsion, fear warring with rage.”
I found the descriptions of flight to be among the most enjoyable aspects of the prose, so I wanted to quote something related to that. However, I also found that it was less a single line, and more the overall ambiance that Kaeth manages to communicate through those sections of text. This gets at what I’m talking about, though the entire scene does so better:
“She tightened her hold on her harness and he dove again, spinning as he dropped. The wind snatched at her, tearing her hair loose from her braids and whipping tears of cold from her eyes. Ground and sky turned in a dizzying tunnel around her while she struggled to keep an eye on the walavaim.”
I warmed to this book more than I expected to, once I shifted my expectations of what I was reading. It is more coherent as an insight to an alien hybrid dragon-human culture than as a mystery or straightforward epic fantasy. If one accepts Palon as an unreliable narrator who cannot help but portray her enemy’s actions as transparently obvious, then the frustratingly poor decisions and ambivalence of her supposed friends makes better sense.
While I didn’t love it, there are a lot of things to like about Windward – the worldbuilding and societal structure are unique, and make it a worthwhile read by themselves. Unlike Scarlett and Calvin, I don’t think it has the underlying themes to fit within YA – a common aspect is a coming of age journey and I didn’t really get that from Palon’s development. If Tebah was the main/POV character, I think an argument could be made for YA, but not as it is.
Windward is a very catchy novel from the beginning and sets the hook with an incredible flight scene. If one enjoys a world with dragons, this would be the one to immerse into. I didn’t love everything about the book, Tebah and her attitude for example or the wrap-ups of some conflicts, but overall, it is so unique and such an intimate world brimming with dragon lore, that I would still recommend it. It does give off some YA vibes with the young characters and I think a younger audience would enjoy this novel very much.
This one was fun, and hard for me to put down. Even with that fact, however, there were still definitely some weaknesses. The tendency of Palon’s friends to make incredibly poor decisions continues to frustrate me, but the worldbuilding of the story is really very good. While I was hooked on the book, I did find moments where it felt like the plot wasn’t hanging together overly well. Looking at this as a YA story primarily about the fragility of found family probably makes the most sense of the story, for me.
So, while Windward did not make it be our chosen finalist, it nonetheless entertained our judges. If dragons are your “thing” (and from the earliest days dragons have been the bedrock, even the definition of fantasy), then Windward may well be worth an add to your TBR list.