Book Review: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning #1)

I am going to be completely upfront about my reading preferences. As a general rule, I don’t read self-published works. There are too many choices as it stands just by shopping in bookstores (self-published books rarely get into bookstores). And there’s just something to be said about looking at a physical copy of a book, its cover and synopsis, that is not relegated to a small icon on the screen.

After reading The Rage of Dragons, however, I might reconsider.

The book was initially self-published by Evan Winter. I don’t know exactly how long it was sold before getting picked up by Orbit, but I do know that it gained enough traction for the publishing company to extend an offer, and that it was published through Orbit last year. I’m glad that it did, because, wow, what a gem.

Author: Evan Winter

Genre: High fantasy

Series: The Burning; book 1

Synopsis:

The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.

Structure and Pacing

This is a five hundred plus page book that, somehow, never has a dull moment. Books of that length are nothing new to me, but, man. It took me ten days to read, and at the end of each one, I went to bed just a little too late because I couldn’t help reading just one more chapter.

The Importance of Formatting

Before I get into things plot-related, I first wanted to explain how Rage of Dragons is set up. There are sixteen chapters, but each chapter is broken up into smaller pieces. Essentially, it reads as if the book was divided into sixteen parts, with a handful of chapters making up each part. I doubt Winter did this for the sole purpose of making his book a faster read, but that was certainly an effect. While the chapters were, on average, a hefty thirty pages, the sub-chapters tended to range anywhere from three to eight. It was like opening a Pringles jar, swearing that you were only going to eat a few, and then ten minutes later, the whole jar is empty.

Why Character Motivation Matters

There is a reason Rage of Dragons has few, if any, dull moments. Tau joins the Omehi’s army for one very specific reason, but there are other forces at work. It’s an interesting choice, one that easily could have failed, but Winter manages it beautifully. Everything Tau goes through, he does to equalize the playing field so that when he faces the Nobles on his kill list, he will not be defenseless. And yet, his skill earns him renown, and in a society so heavily focused on warfare, it’s unsurprising that Tau then finds himself in a position to shape the future of his people.

Normally, it’s ill-advised to write a book filled with fight scenes. There are supposed to be quiet moments in between to give the reader and the characters a breather. I don’t know how exactly Winter wrote a story so full of tension that I couldn’t stop flipping pages, not once. Maybe the stakes are just impossible to forget, even for a moment. Maybe it’s because there was a checklist leading to Tau’s success, and every one crossed off just seamlessly led to the next goal. Either way, this is not a book that can be read in small doses.

Isolated by Choice

The character work does leave something to be desired. I enjoyed reading about several of the characters; I’d keep an eye out for the likes of Hadith or Uduak. However, while several of the characters are given room to develop, there is little opportunity to learn about most of them. Tau’s character is admirably devoted to his cause, but it will not leave room for building connections with his sword brothers.

The only one you will really get to know well is Tau, which is sometimes unfortunate, because he is not the smartest in the bunch and never claims to be. If you like reading about characters making dumb decisions and then having to deal with the consequences of their stupidity, you won’t be disappointed. Well, you might be disappointed with Tau, but not with the book.

My biggest disappointment is with the beginning of the book, where Tau deals with the loss mentioned in the synopsis. It’s clear from the beginning that Tau was not meant to be a warrior; he’s not a particularly good swordsman, he’s no strategist, and when he gets a taste of the battlefield, it’s realistic and horrifying. It’s believable, the route that Tau feels is his best option. And although the traumatic murder is indeed also horrifying and shows the reader exactly the kind of world that Tau lives in, Tau does not understand exactly what is happening, and his confusion downplays the horror rather than amplify it. It undermines, to a small degree, Tau’s sudden change of heart and the violence he’s willing to go to (and through) to reach his ends.

What Fantasy Worlds Should Be

Admittedly, Rage of Dragons does not take place on some large, sprawling map. The names of the cities are not particularly clever. And the magic, which I will get into in just a minute, was not particularly impressive. However, if you tire of Euro-centric fantasy settings, this is a lucky find. The main weapons are swords, yes, but they are bronze. There is a queen, yes, and nobles, but no knights in armor, just various castes. And those castes influence every part of life. It was so vivid at times that it felt like I was intruding (which I mean wholeheartedly in the best way possible).

Be warned. Rage of Dragons does throw the reader right in the thick of things, though. There were several instances where I struggled to make connections, where some passing statement caused more confusion than was probably intended.

The inclusion of indigenous warriors added another layer to the setting. They felt a little like the Wheel of Time’s Aiel, with their weapons of choice and the way they divide their cultures. They lack a lot of the nuance the Aiel had, though. I wanted a little more sophistication, or at least, some proof that the hedeni were more than the savages that the Omehi made them out to be. But there were a few instances in the narrative where they could have been given more nuance, to the reader at least, yet weren’t.

Magic and Dragons

Conceptually, the magic system was interesting. It blends a form of superpower magic with a limited type of multi-world magic. (See: Five Types of Magic Systems.) And, it’s true that I enjoy finding books about magic-less characters in a world with magic. However, like with the side characters, Tau’s dedication to his revenge makes him (and therefore, the reader) blinded to practically all else. Perhaps the second book will allow the reader more interaction with the magic system, maybe offer a few PoVs of someone who actually wields it.

In the meantime, you can content yourself with the deadly dragons that appear off and on throughout the story.

War

I could not get through this whole review without mentioning the way in which war is portrayed. At its heart, Rage of Dragons is–at least I hope–against the idea of war. It does not pull punches in recognizing the cost. It does not stop at scars, like many fantasy books do. Instead, so many characters are said to have lost one limb, or several. The terrifying reality of privilege on the battlefield, how Commons are thrown into the thick of battle while the Nobles, who are better trained, better fed, are often kept in reserve… all paints a horrific picture.

Yet the way that the characters embrace the killing raise as many ethical questions as they answer. It results in quotes spoken from an anti-war character–“Watch for sacrifice counters. Your enemy doesn’t have to win for you to lose” (304)–competing against the hard-to-argue logic of a war-hungry characters saying “I can’t imagine a world where the man holding the sword does not have the last say over the man without one,” (394). It’s a bit hard to pick a side after that. It’s not exactly a bad thing, just unexpected.

Overall Rating: 5 Stars

Despite the aforementioned pitfalls of the book, it was definitely worth the read. Its greatest strength is understanding the widespread consequences of any given action, and its fast pace. That, paired with the fact that its very setting is so different from traditional, Euro-centric ones, just gives it that extra flair.

If you like fantasy books that are slightly more plot-driven, and if you don’t mind reading extensive fight scenes, you will probably enjoy Rage of Dragons. Just understand that although it is fantasy, interaction with the magic system and with mythical dragons are both kept to a bare minimum, and that the book’s main draw is its life-like setting and its protagonist’s dedication to his cause.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, but you hate waiting between books, I have good news. Fires of Vengeance (book #2) was published just recently, back on November 10th 🙂


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