Stephen Deas, ‘The Adamantine Palace’

I don’t seem to have done very well at this blog business so far. I think it’s partly because I’ve felt that every post ought to be substantial. Not earth-shattering, but at least containing some well-considered viewpoint. Bugger that. This is going to be more of a reading diary from now on, and if I don’t have much to say about a book, well, at least I’ll record that I’ve read it. Which will at least be useful to me, even if no-one else ever reads any of this.

Having said that, I’m prodded back in this direction by the flaws in my latest library book (a pity that I’m always more motivated by irritation than admiration, but I suspect that can’t be helped) and so this will be more than an ‘I’ve read this’ entry.

‘The Adamantine Palace’ by Stephen Deas is another take on a world where people ride dragons. This time, it’s a world where the only way people can stop the dragons descending in fury and incinerating the population is to feed them a potion which numbs their brains and makes them biddable. There are two focuses to the plot: one is the awakening of a dragon and its destructive reaction, and the other is ruthless intrigue among the rulers of the region to see who’s going to be the next top dog.

The dragon thing is a nice idea, no question about that, and the plot is well-shaped and does the requisite number of twists and turns. But if you’re looking for an exploration of the ethics of the question of taming the dragons, or evocation of the parallels between the destructive nature of the dragons and the viciousness of the humans, this isn’t your book. We’re told that dragons are violent and want revenge (and food), and that humans are ruthless and want power (and sex), and that’s about it. The parallels are, I suppose, obvious, but could be made more interesting.

There are no nice guys in this book, the characters mostly differing from each other only in terms of social position, motivation, and degree of nastiness. One character, Princess Jaslyn, does come off the page as a person, but since her chief characteristic appears to be her inability to interact with anyone who isn’t a dragon, and her function in the plot seems to be to be ordered about by her mother, this spark is largely wasted. The chief villain of the piece (i.e., the one who’s even nastier than everyone else) does have a certain cheerful glee to his villainy which is welcome, but it’s not enough to lift the tone. It’s not that the thoughts and actions of the characters aren’t believable, merely that they’re all depressingly similar. The narrative point of view shifts a great deal, so that you’re rarely in doubt of what the characters are feeling, but it’s often hard to care. Deaths are treated matter-of-factly, unless they form a part of someone else’s motivation, and even then there’s not a lot of depth to anyone’s reaction.

I had a few more quibbles:

1. The book starts with four genealogical tables showing various royal families. I should have known that this was not a good sign. I spent the first several chapters flicking back and forth trying to work out who was being discussed and why, and eventually began to find that I stopped caring. It’s a complex world that Deas has envisaged, but it’s only ever sketched, not drawn. This makes it a lot harder to remember the names and roles particularly of the more minor characters being mentioned, as they have no real context.

2. There’s one very odd story-telling decision which bugged me. Two of the characters are mercenaries who are friends and cousins. We see certain episodes in the first half of the story through the eyes of one of them, and the second is shown only from the other’s viewpoint. Yet when the author kills off one of them, it’s the one he’s previously been using as a viewpoint character, meaning that for the second and more important half of the story we’re suddenly in the company of someone we don’t know as well. Why do this?

3. You can’t seize someone gently.

I suspect a sequel is on the horizon, but I don’t want to spend any more time in the company of these characters. I’ve no objection to ruthless intrigue, but some genuine humanity and for preference a spark of leavening humour, however dark, are necessary for me to get involved (mercenaries making crude jokes because that’s what mercenaries do doesn’t count). It’s a pity, because the world Deas creates is potentially an interesting one (and hallelujah, he can construct a sentence).

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