THE DRAGONS OF DEEPWOOD FEN by Bradley P. Beaulieu (BOOK REVIEW)
“I’m a man who stands between two worlds—one foot in the empire, the other in the Holt. I’m borne on the currents created by the empire’s formation and the long, storied history of the Holt. To say I’m fascinated by their entwined tales would be to trivialize it. At times, it feels like a burning desire, impossible to ignore.”
When a covert thief and a perceptive inquisitor stumble upon the same cryptic mystery, these two lives weave together to save the world from falling into unimaginable chaos.
Rylan Holbrooke is caught between two worlds; he’s the bastard son of Marstan Lyndenfell, the Imperator of the Holt, but he is also half Kin, a race of people who have been severely oppressed by the Empire’s rule. By day Rylan is a dragon singer, a healer of dragons, but by night he is a master thief. When his skills force him to reluctantly become entangled with The Red Knives, a group of violent freedom fighters, it leads him to the mountain city of Ancris where he becomes branded a traitor. In Ancris Inquisitor Lorelei Aurelius, a woman of great intelligence and skill for problem solving, has stumbled upon the same mystery as Rylan: why are the two opposing factions, The Red Knives and The Chosen—zealots of the Alran Church, holding secret meetings? The answer is not one Rylan nor Lorelei find answers too easily but when the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place, they both realise they must stop both groups before they awaken the horrors of the past.
The Dragons of Deepwood Fen is the superb new high fantasy series by Bradley P Beaulieu. This is a classic tale of the thirst for power, of rising up from oppression and of a race to save the world, all done with a fantastic draconian twist.
This is a book that requires a reader’s patience as it takes almost half of the novel before the plot becomes clear and for the rather large cast of characters to fall into place. Some may struggle or become disappointed with the pacing and complexity, which I can completely understand, but I personally was captivated by the mystery. We are dropped into this world of five ruling quintarchs who are each placed in five different capitals with Ancris being the main focus of this book. Ancris is a privileged and prosperous city, a place of high fashion, leading alchemy and technological advancement. Then there is the Holt which is described as a vassal state. The Holt is close to Deepwood Fen and is built up from trees and nature, it’s a place I found so vividly described that it reminded somewhat of Rivendell. Though it has a measure of independence, the empire still keeps a tight grip upon and treats the Kin who live there as the lesser race. This has led to the formation of The Red Knives who will stop at nothing to gain full independence, regardless of the consequences, and here lies our main conflict. I found this narrative absolutely fascinating but the deeper we delved into the characters, the magic system, the religious lore and the dragon lore, I became even more immersed.
As I have mentioned this book has a large cast of characters, each of which I found addictive to follow as each served various purposes. Through Rylan we get a glimpse at the atrocities the empire had committed against the Kin throughout the years, from the executions by dragon-fire or hanging to the outlawing of the Kin’s natural ability to bond with dragons. Rylan is a character who, although defies the Empire in secret, also doesn’t wish to see innocent people from both sides get caught in a needless war. He’s not driven by revenge or hatred but is driven by the prospect of peace which made him a character I could truly care for. I also loved exploring his forbidden bond with his dragon Vedron, who wanted nothing more than to fly with Rylan and be free, in essence sharing the same goal. Yet through Rhiannon, a young Kin Druid, we see just how the empire oppresses the Kin by having their history, their magic and old ways of life erased to better control them. Rhiannon’s character was sorrowful, she’s a child of innocence, a child who doesn’t want bloodshed, but her entire life is either being manipulated by the Church or her own family. You see the Kin are used as little more than slaves and the time of revolution has come. As Rhiannon begins to explore her abilities and learns about The Book of the Holt where her grandmother recorded the old ways, it becomes clear how attuned Druids are to their natural world and just how powerful the Kin could be. Rhiannon could be the catalyst for that shift in power.
“Every moment that passed felt as if the crowd were pressing tighter, but the smell of manure from their barrel in the wagon actually calmed her, took her to quiet pastures, far from Ancris. “Nothing like a bit of shit to remind you how deep in it you are.”
Rylan looked down at the muck and laughed deep from the belly. He had a good laugh, she decided.”
If that wasn’t enough to contend with, we then have the added narrative of the religious zealots, The Chosen. Through Inquisitor Lorelei’s investigations we discover how the quintarchs were in constant conflict with religious figureheads such as Azariah. Lorelei is a refreshing character, one I was taken with immediately. She gets overwhelmed and anxious in crowds yet works hard to get past this, she makes mistakes and lands herself in danger but is quick to conjure up plans of escape. Lorelei may be a tool of the empire but she’s also fair and empathetic, and is driven to save Ancris from its hidden enemies. Throughout history The Chosen made sure to place their priests in positions of power, from the Empire’s Draconae army to the councils and alchemy research schools, making it easier for them to seize control when the time arose. Azariah, was was surprisingly someone you could feel sympathy for as he was riddled with grief over the death of his son and was compelled by forces stronger than him. The Hissing Man, who was constantly in Azariah’s ear, made for a great complex villain, one who shared the same religious compulsion and thirst for power, but in more violent ways. Once the novel begins to reach its climax it’s revealed that the lore surrounding the Gods, the five shrines and five paragons had been concealed and manipulated to the point where the truth is now lost and what is recorded is full of contradictions. Religious warfare is now used merely as a means to gain power and how true does that ring to today’s world? At the centre of this book is the notion of what happens when any one faction gains too much power?
The main source of alchemical power throughout the lands comes from aura and umbra, the bright and dark sun, and of course was coveted by the wealthy. The magic system works in a variety of ways and although that was fascinating to explore, it was of course the dragons which stole the show for me. I particularly found the way that the dragons were incorporated into every aspect of the worldbuilding absolutely incredible. The empire used crops and fetters to bind their radiant dragons, whereas the Kin could naturally bond with their umbral dragons providing a mental and emotional link between them. Though umbral dragons were outlawed and therefore hunted and killed, their bones and blood were used by the empire to make illicit drugs or masks or machinery from, their scales harvested to create auris and umbris powders for humans to gain abilities. Yet even the dragons themselves had an array of inherent abilities, from spraying acid to breathing out noxious myrrh, to creating blinding light, turning people into stone or the ability to trap and compel victims and bend them to their will. Honestly this made the book a real treat to read as when the dragons took the skies I could imagine their ranging colour hues as stunning and majestic, I could visualise them releasing their powers on their enemy targets, I could even imagine the sounds of their trumpets, the sound of pure feral rage or delight. This is why I love dragons, they just make everything that much better!
“Bothymus landed on a snow-covered stretch of ground. He spun about, reared, and spread his wings. Then he screeched and lit his wings, beautiful and fearsome, blazing blues, purples, and yellows expanding in bright, hypnotic swirls.
Vedron turned her head toward the big indurium and stopped beating her wings. She began falling away from the rock cluster toward the big island below.”
The Dragons of Deepwood Fen is a sheer delight of complex politics, religion and intricate alchemy, and contains enough dragons to make any fantasy lover beam with glee.
ARC provided by Polly at Head of Zeus and Ad Astra Fiction in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy!
The Dragons of Deepwood Fen is out now! Pick up your copy from Bookshop.org