Fiction Reviews


(2023) L. R. Lam, Hodder, £16.99, hrdbk, 433pp, ISBN 978-1-399-71548-5


Is there anything new to say about dragons, one of the most used tropes in the Fantasy oeuvre?

Well, in this novel, the first of a series, Lam gives us her version to try and do so. Dragonfall manages to respect the icons of the past, whilst at the same time updates the trope to bring us something rather more contemporary.

Much of Dragonfall is about revenge, vengeance and the past. Once upon a time dragons were seen as gods by humans, but years ago they were banished with magic through the Veil to the land of Vere Celene, a place they cannot return from. That doesn’t stop them trying to return though, something humans understandably dread. The priests of the City of Vatra spend much of their time looking for rifts in the Veil, repairing them and fighting with occasional creatures attempting to pass through.

To this setting, we find added our main human character. This is Arcady, a thief living on her wits on the streets of Vatra. She’s making his way through life day by day – but barely. We find out that for the last eleven years she lived with the guilt that the Plaguebringer was one of her ancestors, the one who unleashed the Strike, but is determined to show the world that his malign reputation was misplaced.

When Arcady uses magic from the Plaguebringer’s artefact, the magic spell drags Everen, the sole male dragon, from Vere Celene through the Veil to Arcady’s country of Loc, where he appears in human form.

This affects both of them, as they are now magically bonded. Once they have each adjusted to this unexpected turn of events, both characters see this as an opportunity – Arcady as a chance to make one big – and hopefully final – score, one that will gain her the funds to leave her life of crime and go to university, whilst Everen seizes it as a chance to open the Veil to Vere Celene and save his people. The fact that this involves bonding with Arcady and then killing her may be an issue which creates a certain degree of tension in the novel. Much of the time Everen is conflicted by having to meet his destiny, kill Arcady and being able to return to Vere Celene. At the same time, Arcady feels that Everen will be useful in helping her reach her objective, but doesn’t entirely trust him.

In the latter half of the novel, a heist is created in order for both of them to reach their respective goals. The stakes are high, as any mistake could end up with neither managing to get what they want – not to mention the destruction of their respective worlds.

Regular readers of Fantasy fiction may recognise elements of this plot. It is no coincidence that in the book’s Acknowledgements Lam mentions Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, and Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar amongst other newer writers as her inspirations. There are touches of Pern here, as the plague is rather Thread-like, whilst the character – centred focus of the book echoes that of Hobb in its characterisation of dragons and Lackey’s human characters.

What brings the book bang up to date is that whilst the world of Loc is typical Fantasy fare – mediaevalesque with a touch of baroque Renaissance - the author has added new contemporary elements in form and tone. Stylistically the book takes the interesting move of writing each chapter from a different character’s perspective – mainly Everen’s and Arcady’s, but others as well. One of the results of this is that the reader can see how the different characters think and feel about situations, creating a tension when they are clearly wrong about each other.

To this the current genre interest in seΧuality, identity and gender fluidity is also added. Arcady’s gender is deliberately kept vague throughout most of the novel, for example, as if it was not important, but for Everen, who can change his form from a dragon to his preterit state as a male human, it is more fundamental. To illustrate this there are some rather clunky discussions on how important seΧuality and gender are to a person’s identity.

Of course, the two continue to bond in the novel, which leads to a romance of sorts. I could have done without Arcady’s description of parts of her body throbbing, personally, but it’s on the whole fairly restrained, although there are moments that feel a little overheated at times.

As this is the first of a trilogy, it may not surprise you that much of this book is spent setting things up for later events. The beginning of the book took a while to read and felt rather heavy on information-giving and developing characters. The pace of the story feels rather like a Netflix series to me – a slow start to begin with, but with a steadily growing tension and a fast-paced heist at the end. This pacing may be an issue for some – I felt myself saying “get on with it” on more than one occasion near the beginning, as each character wrestles with their own issues. The pace really only picked up once we reached the heist stage, which is typical Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job in Fantasy form, and is done very well.

Overall, Dragonfall is a good read with enough touches of past tropes to engage older readers and enough innovative aspects to interest newcomers. The fact that it is only the first part of what is clearly going to be a longer story takes away the threat of danger a little, but readers may be engaged enough with the characterisation to find out where they are at the end of the book. The author can clearly write, and once it gets going there’s a lot to like here. Who knew there was something new about dragons to write about, after all?

Mark Yon


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