Note: Perceptive readers may remember that James Maxey contributed a guest post to ISLF in the past and that I've been known to show up from time to time at his blogs, Jawbone of an Ass and The Prophet and the Dragon. Lest anyone think that the following review is somehow less than legit, let me be quick to say that I secured a copy of the title in question with my own resources; it was not provided by the publisher. Also, the author has not promised to wax my car, mow my lawn or send a very large lizard to eat my neighbor's dog. Although I'd take him on all of them if he offered. Particularly consuming the canine, because that thing loves to start barking early on Saturday mornings.
Middle installments of trilogies are tough going. Trapped between initial exposition and the ultimate conclusion, the author must entice his audience without the aid of novelty or resolution. No wonder that so many feel muddled and meandering, a detour from the story's destination rather than a stop along the way. But occasionally you'll happen upon one that consolidates the best parts of its predecessor, dumps its flaws and transforms into a standout novel in its own right. That's exactly what happens with James Maxey's Dragonforge, sequel to Bitterwood.
King Albekizan is dead. The once-mighty dragon lord perished mysteriously when an attempted massacre of incarcerated humans broke out into armed rebellion. Now his once-exiled son Shandrazel is in charge, and he has grand visions of a land where equality reigns, a place where dragons and men can dwell together in harmony. But there are almost as many obstacles to his dream as scales on his hide. The valkyrie legions, female guardians of the dragonic bloodlines, believe such plans endanger their genetic heritage. Ragnar the prophet has begun fomenting resistance among downtrodden humans, amassing war machines with the aid of a Cherokee engineer named Burke. Then there's Blasphet, also known as the Murder God, a dragon dedicated to senseless slaughter who has a coterie of suicidal followers dedicated to following his every whim. And just when you think those might be complications enough, Shandrazel has to deal with that most difficult of foes -- himself. When a realm long ruled by mere might faces strains, lofty ideals can fade like frost under the noonday sun.
Dragonforge improves on its predecessor in most every way. Maxey's mélange of high-fantasy tropes and hard science prove particularly effective. Magic meshes with nanotechnology, siege engines with steampunk, subterranean wyrms with wormholes. "Unique" is a word much bantered about in speculative fiction, but the novel displays a creative vision unlike anything I've ever encountered. It also contains plenty of thematic grit. Characters opine on weighty subjects such as libertarian anarchy and philosophical nihilism. And the actions scenes (of which there are plenty) are so cracking good that I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some Hollywood studio snap up the screen rights. The downside? Well, the prose is a bit rough at points, and fanatical Ragnar is almost a caricature. But these are relatively minor quibbles. Dragonforge burns bright.
(Picture: CC 2009 by zigazou76)