Friday, June 10, 2016

Drawing the Dragon by April Adams

Drawing the Dragon
April Adams
Drawing the Dragon was written in 2011 by an independent author, April Adams. Ms Adams is a former Army Paratrooper (this is a Marine review series but I won't hold that against her), who graduated UC Santa Barbara and lives in San Diego with her husband, children and pets. I bought the book from her in person at Phoenix fan fest 2015 thinking it might be a good review someday, and here we are 6 months later.

The setting is something of a mash up of fantasy and science fiction. The idea is that after settling the moons of Jupiter and pushing out into the galaxy we run into the natives of the Andromeda galaxy; who happen to be humanoid, skinny, short and have pointed ears. As such we dub them elves (for some reason what elves call themselves is never an issue). We also discover great space faring monsters that we dub dragons. Fortunately dragons are friendly. Unfortunately they're dying, or they were before humans came up with a way to say them by turning them into giant cyborg spaceships. I'm going to take a moment to admit that is an awesome idea and I really like this part of the setting. Ms. Adams goes one further by linking the dragon's captain and the dragon itself in a symbiotic relationship. I'm not sure how I feel about this part because it seems like everything is in a symbiotic relationship in science fantasy these days. In this case they bond with their pilots as hatchlings (who are called Jordans for some reason) and grow into fighters and from there into capital ships. The dragons are grown via...magic. An “engineer” gathers together the metal and other materials needed (for example diamond) and using unexplained magic powers bonds that material to the dragon and by increasing the air pressure inside the dragon (remember they've been modified to have human/elf crews living inside of them) cause them to grow quickly. We're actually shown this happening in the book so I have to give Ms. Adams points for showing instead of telling.

The dragons and their Jordans are the main characters of the book, there are three of them each naming themselves after the color of their dragon: Jordan Blue, Jordan Scarlet and Jordan Jade. The story mainly focuses on Scarlet (a human woman) and Blue (an elf woman). Jade (an elf man) isn't really as prominent. We are given a view of his life, but we don't spend as much time with him as the other two. To be fair, he's not as interesting and doesn't have lot to do in this book, but he does get one important job. I found Scarlet the most interesting because in a lot of ways she is the most flawed. She's vain, taking a lot of effort and care to preserve her admittedly very good looks (on the flip side, good looks are something that do take a lot of work to maintain, like strength or intelligence), and she has a vile temper. She is also prideful and petty, making decisions driven by those emotions. She is also brave, tough as hell and driven beyond belief. She does all of this without becoming a terrible person. In combination, these traits mean she is often driving the plot. Blue is no slouch either being a fairly decent character in her own right, but because of her really tight relationship with Galen (a doctor and an elf) she often feels like half a person. It is possible that because the story is about Blue, I end up giving Scarlet more credit for stealing a good chunk of it. Blue does have her own stuff going on, there's a fair amount of strangeness in her back story Most of her life however seems to revolve around her dragon or her boyfriend Galen, to the point of getting some sort of magictech comm chip embedded in her ear so she can talk to him 24/7. Which does seem a little unhealthy. While I don't dislike Blue, I kind of find her confusing and while I appreciate her character, there's not a lot of pay off. I'll come back to this.

There is one element I do know how I feel about, the Chimera. The Chimera are an artificial race built to look perfect and be in great physical shape, so of course they were built as a slave race. More specifically, a race of pleasure slaves and living status symbols; owning a Chimera was a sign of wealth and prestige. Until they eventually rose up, killed their masters, and fled out into the darkness of space to plot revenge on the societies that created them. These are, of course, the villains of the story and honestly they're kinda lame.  I'll grant that an interstellar society allows for a vast scale so even exclusive luxury goods can be made en mass, but that same scale means they would be extremely widely scattered across light years. Hell there could only be a couple thousand of them on a planet. These aren't sapient creatures being created in millions to toil in factories or mines, but people being made to serve as sex toys and status symbol nannies, butlers, and maids for the super elite. All of this begs the question of how the hell did they managed a coordinated uprising and escape? Sure they had people helping them who weren't Chimera but you would need a hell of an organization to pull that off. This also brings up another question. Why? OH WHY? WOULD YOU EVER MAKE SAPIENT SLAVES!?! ESPECIALLY SAPIENTS WHO WOULD REALIZE THEY'RE SLAVES AND HATE IT!?! WHY WOULD YOU EVEN WANT TO!?! This is a society where we are shown they have the ability to make non-sapient constructs who do the jobs that the Chimera did just as well and were just as pretty. So even pretending there would be no moral questions about this, there are a host of practical and safety related questions that arise.

This is a repeating theme in fantasy and science fiction stories that take on the role of a morality play (a story meant to teach about good and sinful behavior basically). Honestly I'm getting a bit tired of it, or rather I get tired of it being jammed in without any real thought about it. The humans in this story are suppose to be descended from our Earth. The book even shows us a far future remake of the Wizard of Oz, so clearly parts of our popular culture survived and spread. One of the repeating lessons of our popular entertainments is that creating slave races is bad! So why would you do it? It doesn't help that a lot about the Chimera themselves are left a mystery. We know they have ships (or at least one ship) but are they now a rival empire? A roving fleet? A terrorist organization? The book treats them inconsistently, with the central government refusing to authorize violent action against them despite them committing several acts of war. This is something I found frustrating because there's no explanation for why the central government is dragging it's feet. And then there's Bjorn.

I loathe Bjorn. Not in the love-to-hate way I do a lot of villains of page and screen, but in the way I do characters that just annoy me. Ms. Adams seems to want me to sympathize and root for Bjorn when he decides that he's in love in Scarlet but I just found this creepy; mainly because he decides this after spending a couple hours torturing her, including taking a blowtorch to her ribs. Call me old fashioned, but I'm of the opinion that once someone tortures you that severely, they're off the dating list forever. Frankly, his willingness to throw away his plans and advantages to protect Scarlet from others comes across as creepy and obsessive. It doesn't help that Ms. Adams like to suggest that Scarlet does feel a major attraction to him and is just lying to herself about her feelings. Okay yes, Bjorn is very pretty, but I'm going to argue that prettiness stops being compelling after a torture session that almost kills you, along with various murders and attempted murders of people you know and care for.

Additionally, the pacing is a mess. There are flashbacks without any announcement, so you're left trying to figure out why a character who was piloting a dragon 2 pages ago is now on vacation with her boyfriend on abandoned Earth. Changes in viewpoint character are sudden and if you're not paying attention you miss them entirely. I get the feeling that Ms. Adams is trying to create a feeling of being unmoored in time and space for her reader as part of the theme she is proposing rather haphazardly in the book, but instead makes the book hard to read and the story difficult to follow. Several minor characters wander in and out of the story without much announcement, which only makes the problem worse. There's also the narrative device she chooses to impart the history of her universe to us: that of a Grandfather telling stories to his unknown-how-many-great's grandkids. I'm supposed to being wondering what the Grandfather's deal is and who he really is, but I'm so overloaded with mysteries and schemes in this book that I simply don't care. It would also help if she didn't try to hide the identity of the characters in the flashbacks. Yes, I get that the Jordans changed their names upon becoming Jordans. No, having flashbacks to their training appear as disconnected sections with nothing to do with the plot until the very end without any identification of who the hell I'm reading about didn't make me feel favorable. It's fairly easy to figure out by the 2nd time it happens, so when the reveal comes there's little feeling of pay off. Frankly this book needed an editor badly or at least someone to tell Ms. Adams that yes, she is being very clever with all of this but cleverness comes in a distant 2nd to telling a story that the reader can follow.

There's also my eternal complaint. The story isn't complete. We're left with questions that are only raised in the last 30 pages of the book, and character conflicts that literally only happen in the last chapter! Instead of this being a pay off for the story and a conclusion, it's basically an announcement to read the next book to find out what the hell is going on. At this point I think everyone knows how I feel about that. It's okay to end a book with someone setting up a quest for the next one. Just make sure you've told me a complete story before you do it. I pay you money for this, the least you can do is give me a complete story! I feel like I'm banging on this drum every other review and I honestly don't mean to, but everyone keeps doing this! We had a build up about some revelation about Jordan Blue that was frankly half done for example.  So I find myself very frustrated with Drawing the Dragon. There's a good story here with an interesting universe and very human characters but it's screwed up by lousy pacing and jarring shifts in the narrative; and a lack of a satisfying conclusion. So, while I want to give it a higher grade because cyborg dragons! In Space! In the end Drawing the Dragon by April Adams gets C, because that's what it earned.

Bah, next week we're going to try something new. A historical graphic novel. See you then.

This review was edited by Dr. Ben Allen.  

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