KRAKEN RIDER Z – by David Estes and Dyrk Ashton (BOOK REVIEW)
If there’s one thing dragons fear, it’s a kraken.
Even lowly hull-scrubber Zee Tarrow knows that. Like everyone on the island kingdom of Tosh, he grew up frightened by fables and horrible tales of the great beasts of the deep. It seems an odd thing to impress upon the children of the realm, because – luckily for the dragons and their riders – no one has seen a kraken in a thousand years.
Then again, Tosh’s lifeblood is the sea. Royal Dragon Knights guard the king’s ships from the constant threat of pirates, hostile empires, and the monstrous horrors that dwell beneath the waves. It makes sense that the people would fear krakens, even after generations of Knights graduate and take flight from the ramparts of Triumf’s Citadel, the country’s most elite – and therefore also exclusive – military academy. A school that Zee, who has barely ever had more than two copper pennies to rub together, should have no chance of getting into.
Thing is… Zee has a secret. He’s not only seen a kraken…
He saved its life.
When that truth gets out, will Zee be hunted by the Dragon Knights he has always envied and admired, or will he become the first Kraken Rider in history…?
From the minds of David Estes and Dyrk Ashton, authors of Fatemarked and The Paternus Trilogy, comes a series perfect for fans of Iron Prince, Mage Errant, and Ascendant. Kraken Rider Z is an action-packed fantasy series with lots of heart, and the kind of unbreakable bond between man and beast that hasn’t existed for centuries. Start your adventure today!
Dyrk Ashton and Davide Estes’ new release, the first in a planned trilogy of books, introduces us to a young boy Zee and the strange animal that he finds and bonds with. While it is presented as Progression fantasy, the authors deliver a compelling narrative that is still full of the plot twists, fantastical world building, and desperate battles that are the essential ingredients of entertaining fantasy. For those familiar with Ashton’s earlier Paternus trilogy, there is a similar frantic pace though not quite as many point of view characters, and with Zee very much the focal perspective. The tone is towards the Young Adult end of the fantasy spectrum, with its youthful protagonist and inworld curses that avoid more familiar Anglo-saxon terms.
We meet Zee as a seven-year old only child living with his parents by the sea in a world where pigs are both beasts of burden and occasional mounts. Zee stumbles across an egg from which a strange-shaped creature is struggling to escape. Zee protects and nurtures the creature which will grow up to become Jessup the Kraken. I did find it difficult to form a visual image of the young Jessup (hopefully the book’s cover reveal will help with that) but eventually I found myself picturing him as like a witch’s hat with ten legs.
Zee’s world is filled with dragons and knightly dragon riders who defend their scattered island nations against a sea that is full of malevolent creatures. While the bonded dragon/rider pair is a familiar trope seen in books like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire and S.Kaeth’s Windward, there is plenty of creativity and novelty in the world’s religions, creatures’ and magic systems of Zee’s world. The creation story feeds into both the enduring conflict between denizens of land and ocean and also the complementary magic systems that Zee and Jessup are uniquely placed to exploit.
There is a handy article by Andrew Rowe describing progression fantasy here which gives some examples to illustrate how the “sub-genre” sits between but also differs from LitRPG and “conventional” fantasy. While LitRPG may emphasise game and rule elements more, progression fantasy appears to be more about graded magic systems and levels – though I have very limited personal experience of both LitRPG and Progression fantasy – so apologies to anyone I might offend in my inexpert grappling for the core concept.
Although progression Fantasy might be considered a sub-genre of fantasy, genre borders are notoriously porous and “progression” elements manifest themselves more in the relative emphasis than the absolute novelty within the narrative. Rather than supplanting more conventional plot expectations a progression fantasy takes an aspect that is a familiar feature of many stories, the training montage, the acquisition of skills and enhancement of powers, and makes them the core element of the story. (Rowe makes the case that the Harry Potter series is an example of progression fantasy, with the protagonists’ abilities becoming progressively enhanced as they move through the hierarchical school structure.)
In the case of Zee and Jessup, the progression element manifests itself in a detailed exploration of the classes of knights and dragons, and the potential to rise through a hierarchy of levels and titles. Aspects of the magic system made me think of Minecraft and also of the harvesting of various resources that I used to do in World of Warcraft. For those progression fantasy enthusiasts who enjoy immersion in such systems, this aspect of the book is certainly well developed, though I am more intrigued by plot and character and action of which there is plenty.
It would be too spoilery to chart the path that leads Zee and Jessup to the training scenario. However, they do end up with a college of recruits (humans and dragons) all hoping to graduate from basic training and eventually form a bonded dragon rider pair on the first rung of the ladder to much higher status. Some aspects of the training montage reminded me of the film An Officer and a Gentleman with recruits battling through assault courses and cross country runs, forming alliances and overcoming weaknesses in the drive to succeed.
The problem with training/school settings is they can make it difficult to inject combat and peril scenarios but the authors create a realistic training simulation tailored to his setting, much as Orson Scott Card did in Ender’s Game. Part simulation, part entertainment arena, Jessup and Zee witness the top knights deliver a masterclass in combat technique around the mid-point of the book. As a reader you feel sure this is a foreshadowing of Zee and Jessup taking their own turn in the simulation arena, but the plot twists to address that reader expectation in a somewhat subversive way.
While Zee and Jessup take centre stage, the book gives us glimpses into the lives of a host of peripheral characters offering either cryptic Dumbeldore-ish encouragement, or malicious Malfoy-ish opposition. The school setting breeds its bullies and fans the flames of prejudice and there is even a Hagrid-esque beast master who takes great interest in Jessup’s powers and development. In the naming of some of these characters Ashton and Estes take inspiration from the fantasy community with many names resonant of past SPFBO judges or contenders which brought a smile to my lips without being unduly distracting.
While the champions may epitomise the heroic ideal in body and spirit, there are some less favoured characters, for example the dragon trainee hindered by a club foot and Zee himself has an asthma-like complaint – though the underlying cause is linked to one of the book’s more dramatic plot twists.
The watery nature of the world emphasises the role of ships for trade and warfare. While one can assume that these dragons are not of Smaug or Glaurung proportions, I did wonder – as with Temeraire – at how huge dragons and cramped shipboard quarters could be reconciled. At one point we board a wooden ship large enough (over 1000 feet long) to rival a Forrestal class Aircraft carrier (1067 feet), and even then the interior accommodation makes one think the vessel must have some Tardis like qualities!
The progression fantasy elements feature heavily with Jessup and Zee learning and developing their skills and capabilities such that in places the magical environment takes the place of the conventional antagonist. At these times the focus falls on Zee and Jessup’s struggles for mastery and progression against an indifferent rather than an active opposition. However, beyond those relatively solitary self-explorations lie friends and enemies and enemies who become friends in the best traditions of conflict driven fantasy. While neither bullies nor supporters are particularly subtle or nuanced in how they express their characters, they do help keep the story rattling along and rising above a simple catalogue of skill acquisition. The final section of the book takes a detour into a very high stakes adventure that offers Zee and Jessup a chance to shine, while also setting up some mysteries and opportunities for subsequent books to explore.
Elements of Kraken Rider Z inevitably dwell on progression aspects, or pursue familiar tropes of bonded dragon rider pairs, or training school politics. However, the authors bring enough inventivity and mad-cap magic action to make Kraken Rider Z an enjoyable read simply as pure fantasy.