King's Dragon by Kate Elliott
This is the second time I’ve tried to read Kate Elliot’s King’s Dragon and the second time I’ve quit reading it. The first time wasn’t on purpose—I read it over the span of weeks until I set it down and forgot to ever pick it back up again. Maybe that should have been a sign, but as I perused my shelves of ForFemFan books, I figured this time I’d give it a real go.
It starts off with a prologue. For the average book I’d consider this a detraction, but in King’s Dragon it worked. A young woman, clearly magical, mythical or otherwise not-traditionally-mortal-human, is leaving her infant son and his father. It becomes clear that bearing a child for this man was part of some greater cosmic scheme and, now that she has fulfilled what was expected of her despite great personal cost, she’s ready to move on.
While the idea of a destined child is an often boorish trope in fantasy, I still enjoyed this prologue. First off, I love that the mother wasn’t killed off, as is so often the case. I also love that she takes the rarely seen choice of opting to leave her child. I further love that she’s not demonized for this choice. She’s not a villain, she’s a rather sympathetic young woman who did a hard thing out of conviction and is ready to put it behind her. The child will be in good hands with his father. Nothing more is needed of her.
At this point I couldn’t possibly understand how I had wandered away from King’s Dragon and forgotten about it.
Then we meet Alain, a young man promised to the monastery by his adopted father. He’s doesn’t want that life, but he’s a shockingly good sport about it. On the day of his initiation, though, raiders attack his town. All looks lost until what appears to be an avatar of some sort of war goddess appears to him and offers a deal: his service in exchange for the safety of the village. He accepts and, as the monastery is somehow exempt from this deal and is burnt to the ground and its monks murdered, he escapes an ecclesiastical life and is instead conscripted into the army.
This part was … okay, though saying it like that makes me feel bad. It was fine, but it was also really heavy on things that aren’t interesting and don’t advance the plot but are authentic to a medieval world of this nature: we learn about his cousins and the monks and the village he calls home. We learn about tax collection and watch an official go about the business of collecting said taxes. None of this is damning, and in the context of an engaging plot I don’t think I’d think twice about it. But with little else for me to chew on other than the words passing before my eyes, the attention to detail on these superfluous / world-building ideas started to distract me. King’s Dragon was still an entirely acceptable book, but I could feel that my heart wasn’t in reading it—I was just putting in time hoping eventually I’d be won over.
After Alain, Liath comes on stage. Her and her father are on the run from some powerful and magical evil, though Liath doesn’t know what, exactly—her father never tells her. For a few seasons they’ve laid low in a small village and, with her sixteen birthday nearing, he realizes he needs to begin training her in his passion/profession: sorcery. Before you get too excited, sorcery in this world is mostly astrology and memorizing facts. There is a lot of astrolabe talk. Here things started to feel like the fantasy equivalent of “hard sci-fi.”
I can roll with “hard” speculative fiction in the right context. The most obvious is if I’m invested in the character(s), but I don’t have to have characters I’m personally invested in to read a lot of hard specifics with interest. If the tone of the writing is especially delightful, I can read through thousands of seemingly superfluous asides about the state of the war and the cost of beef—think Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell. If the world is so nuanced and quizzical that it’s almost like its own character, I will actively revel in specifics about how people live their daily life—think Star’s Reach.
But King’s Dragon was stolid, steady, not exciting but not bad either, just … kinda like real life, I guess? Just real life set in a war-torn magical world.
Anyway, I wasn’t invested, so I couldn’t bring myself to care about the “hard” stuff for too long. So occasionally, when there was a lot of astrology talk and I was getting bored, I’d peek ahead a few pages to whet my appetite of what’s going on with the characters. And if I’m being honest … I never went back to re-read what I skipped. I just couldn’t muster the interest.
So we’re at a bad place here, and then it gets worse. Liath’s father is murdered and his belongings are auctioned off to pay off his debts. Frater Hugh, who both suspects that Liath’s father was a sorcerer and really wants to fuck Liath, commandeers her father’s books, excluding them from the auction and thus guaranteeing that Liath will be sold into slavery to pay off her father’s debts.
And, of course, Frater Hugh buys her.
This is roughly where I quit reading the first time. The power imbalance between Liath and Frater Hugh, the self-serving nature of a religious man abusing his power to prey upon a young woman, the town’s casual acceptance of “eh, this is life,” or, even worse, “you should be grateful, he’s not such a bad guy, just let him fuck you and count your blessings” was too much. I know its fiction, and I know it’s based on reality, but dammit. I don’t read fiction to be reminded that the world is, and always has been, a horrible place. And this isn’t like The Serpent where the depiction of sexism feels revelationary and almost like an act of solidarity with all women who have to deal with misogyny.
Nope, this is just clear cut older, wealthier, more well-connected guy going marginally out of his way to enslave a young woman for his own personal and professional gain. This sort of depiction has existed in books since folks started writing books.
Hoping that Liath soon pulls a Princess Leia on Frater Hugh and strangles him to death, I forced myself to keep reading. After another chapter or two, Liath is still enslaved and hopeless. I could barely bring myself to open the book let alone read multiple pages in a row. I started procrastinating reading, convincing myself that I’d just do a nonogram or two and then finally crack the book. It never happened. After about a week of just not, I finally decided to call it quits.
The thing is, I could force myself to get past Frater Hugh. He’s awful, sure, but there’s a villain in pretty much every book and most of them are especially horrible to women. The problem is that there’s nothing on the other side of Frater Hugh to tempt me on. Liath has no agency, so unless something comes out of left field, she’s stuck with Frater Hugh for the foreseeable future, and a faint hope that she strangles him in his sleep or divine intervention makes him choke to death on his own dick can only keep me going for so long. I need to feel like there’s a bigger picture that Liath and Alain are working within so that intellectually their actions and decisions are stimulating for me and so that emotionally I can hope that things will change. I don’t have have that.
What I do have, though, is information about the saints, martyrs, and political leaders of the land. I know about taxes, and astrolabes, and astrology. I know about the duties of Fraters and the various steps needed to liquidate a person’s assets to pay off their debts. I know a lot about a lot of things, just not the most important thing: why should I care about any of this.
And maybe King’s Dragon gets there, or, extremely likely, this isn’t the sort of book written for anyone who needs a reason to care, but rather for people who thrive on the minutiae of world-building just because they intrinsically find value in it. I can’t argue with the fact that, technically, King’s Dragon is rather good. But after two tries, I also can’t bring myself to read it.
Cover art by Jody A Lee: