The Royal Dragoneers
A Fantasy Novel by M. R. Mathias
An unremarkable "boy and his dragon" cliché delivered with likeable panache.
I must admit I was immediately put off by the title, and I began this novel not even wanting to like it, let alone expecting not to. Mathias plunges the reader immediately into a world not far from that experienced by players of the computer game The Elder Scrolls – which I suppose is a way of saying a fairytale/sword & sorcery, and which is also generally a guaranteed way to provoke me into accusations of laziness and genericity (if there is such a word). Imagine, therefore, my surprise that in spite of his somewhat florid prose, Mathias rapidly drew me in to the narrative. Oh, I thought, this one knows what he's doing.
A few chapters later, however, I realised I was tiring of his verbosity. This is an author who is unable to say "pig s--t", even when he means it. He keeps up a constant flow of erudite vocabulary, both where it is appropriate (such as some pleasing and skilful descriptions of the countryside) and where something a little earthier would have been better. Eventually this begins to grate, especially when it is swamping a good story.
And then, and several times as I worked my way through the book, I nonetheless found myself accusing him of laziness.
Yes, okay, this is a fantasy novel. Yes, okay, it is set in a Faerun / Tamriel clone which is what the reader is expecting.
But some people (possibly even most people) don't only read fantasy. Fantasy is probably less than a fifth of what I read, and in other genres I expect unknown features to be established in some way, not just dropped on me from a great height, in the way that various monsters are in this tale, and indeed various nonhuman races.
This is the first indication that we get that this is even a fantasy novel:
"Little gray goblins and bands of feral, rock-hurling trolls had been ranging down from the higher reaches of the Orich Mountains as of late..."
Here's the first mention of nonhumans:
“Are you and Zah human?” Jenka asked the first question that came to mind. “Or are you elvish, like the village folk say?”
At this point, the protagonist may just be making reference to the villager's fairytale mentality. Sadly, this is not so. Here's how it is confirmed to us:
"...neither of us are completely human. Nor are you. There were a handful of the elvish on the Dogma [a shipwreck], and a few of the little folk, if it is to be believed."
Laziness? Compare this with the care and attention with which Hobbits are introduced in The Hobbit; compare with the way that Pratchett takes the time to re-establish his world at the beginning of almost every Diskworld novel. That is the standard against which you are judged by any reader whose tastes are not limited to fantasy, and if the fantasy genre is full of exactly this kind of laziness – if the reader has come to expect this sort of thing, that is no justification.
Especially for an author of Mathias' obvious skill.
Whatever I may dislike about his redolent style, and whatever I may think of the story he chooses to tell (more below), Mathias knows how to narrate a story and he's good at it. He knows how to develop a background, rich in people and places. Incidental locations and characters are satisfying; much more than one dimensional. I think he judges the description of combat amazingly well – it's just technical enough to be believable, but the detail doesn't get in the way of the excitement.
There are thousands of stories just like the one that Mathias chooses to tell, and it is true that every one of the gentle twists and turns that his plot takes can be spotted by the unaided eye a good few klicks away.
I really don't like the story. I don't like the fact that the main protagonist has Luke Skywalker's Disease*. I don't like the fact that almost every element of the plot can be traced to some other recent fantasy, along with the impression that Mathias is retreading a path that is already very familiar, even to him. I don't like the hastily scribbled female characters – especially since one of them is central to the story. I don't, as I have mentioned, get on well with Mathias' style.
But don't be distracted by my likes and dislikes.
There are undoubtedly people who do, and who will, like this stuff, and I have this to say to them: with Mathias, you are in good hands. He is reliable, careful and consistent. He has his own distinctive style. His plotting is clear and thorough, he won't confuse or lose you, and if you take to his style you will very probably enjoy this book, and want to read more. What you won't find, however, is anything extraordinary, or even especially original. You may even find yourself playing spot the cliché (particularly with regard to characters), as I did. Whether you like this book or not is going, therefore, to be a personal thing. I recommend giving it a try.
I think he can do better. I think if he challenges himself a little – looks for a less hackneyed story to tell; is more ambitions with his plotting or character relationships, is more ambitious with his settings – for instance tries to create an unique fantasy world of his own – then his strengths will really shine through. I think if he can rein in his verbal diarrhoea, if he can learn to explore characters and their interactions rather than just describe them, he could even write something I would enjoy from beginning to end.
*'Luke Skywalker's Disease' is when the main protagonist's entire involvement in the narrative is derived from something mysterious in his recent and/or distant ancestry that results in destiny being thrust upon him. It is at its worst when the protagonist just blindly goes along with it, as is the case here, although in Mathias' defence, he paints a character whose blind following of destiny is entirely believable.
1. on my full scale:
A. Average score: 2.6
plot structure: 5/5
character development 0/5
use of themes 0/5
narrative devices 0/5
You'll notice that of the low points, three out of four are, frankly, optional, and Mathias just doesn't use them (themes, symbolism, devices).
I almost gave 5/5 for vocabulary too, but there were just a little too many words slightly out of place, and obscure words misspelt. When a writer is deliberately going for a rich vocabulary, he must be more attentive.
B. A recommendation to read:
By all means read this if you like this sort of thing.
2. Stars out of 5 for Amazon
But bear in mind that I wouldn't actually give The Da Vinci Code less than 3 stars, because it's a good read, though it barely gets 1 point on my full scale.
(Review by Harry DeWulf)