by Patricia Briggs
Recommended to Carly by: read with Snarktastic Sonja
Recommended for: fans of light epic fantasy
Once upon a time, there were dragons.
Once upon a time, the men who made alliances with them became the Hurogmeten, the guardians of dragons.
Once upon a time, the lands of the Hurog were fertile, the people content, the world full of magic.
Once upon a time, there were dragons.
But that was long ago. Now, Ward, the son of the Hurog, lives in a decrepit castle where the lands themselves seem to be dying from the slow corruption of magic. The dragons may be gone, but Ward is quite familiar with monsters: his abusive father destroyed their family and drove Ward himself to apparent idiocy. After one of the many occasions in which his father beat Ward into unconsciousness, something in the boy's head was knocked a little loose: ever since, he has managed only stilted, halting speech. When Ward discovered that he was considered as slow as his speech, he cultivated an appearance of idiocy as a shield against his father, disguising his intelligence until he would finally be free. Now this day has finally arrived, but Ward's own disguise has backfired: because of his apparent mental handicap, he is considered unfit to rule over the Hurog. Determined to regain his lands, Ward decides to head off to an incipient war with a small band of loyal followers to become a war hero so that he can use his heroic reputation to regain his lands. (Nope, this isn't sarcasm. He seriously decides this. In these terms.) Shockingly, things turn out to be a little more complex: despite an incipient invasion, civil war is brewing against the despicable king of the land, and Ward has just placed himself right in the middle of the conflict.
Dragon Bones is an enjoyable piece of light epic fantasy: interesting worldbuilding, lots of characters, a sufficiently complex plot, and a sympathetic main character. I enjoyed the structure of the plot itself: there are plenty of tales where the boy goes out to seek his fortune, ends up becoming a hero, and returns to his homeland in triumph, but a story in which the protagonist explicitly states that this outcome is his actual overall plan is both unusual and rather hilarious. While the later plot twists aren't particularly surprising, they are handled well. I haven't read epic fantasy for a while, so I enjoyed watching the characters' stories begin to come together with a sense of ponderous inevitability. The writing style, too, added a touch of originality: most of the story is told in first-person by Ward, with a few third-person chapters interspersed to give us scenes outside of Ward's knowledge. Ward is an excellent narrator, and his occasional unreliability add a bit of roundedness to his generally amiable character.
This book happened across my path at a fortuitous moment: jaded by nihilistic gorefests, I was actually quite pleased by the story's uncomplicated morality. The plot itself is not particularly deep; the standard fairy-tale admonition to "be kind to others" is about as much as you get, [with two additional facets: first, Ward's complex feelings about his father: his need to prove himself, his need for affirmation, and his desire to continue his competition with him past the grave. Second, we have a rather interesting portrait of what it means to be a hero, although this complexity is a bit diminished by the "bad dude who acted out of fear and love of power and abused and murdered his own son" bit. (hide spoiler)]. The villains are Very Bad People, in every way you can possibly imagine, and probably a few you'd rather not. After too much time in worlds of dark greys, I was quite pleased to discover that practically everyone else is basically benign, and that most conflict and negativity stems from good-ish people put in problematic circumstances. While this doesn't exactly lend itself to deep moral questions or particularly three-dimensional characters, it does make for a refreshing romp through an enjoyably imaginative world. While I thought most of the side characters could have been fleshed out, I found Ward himself to be an interesting protagonist. It isn't often that the big, slow, gentle giant gets to be the underdog hero--he's usually relegated to comic relief sidekick. I also liked how at least a part of Ward's act of imbecility is not pretense. While Ward is one of the most intelligent characters of the story, he never needed to fake his voice impediment--even after he drops the disguise, he occasionally notes other characters' mounting impatience at his slow speech. It added a touch of vulnerability that the standard heroic-questing-hero-character is typically without.
Overall, Dragon Bones was an enjoyable light fantasy, the stuff I used to devour when I was a kid. While it may have stronger appeal for younger readers, it also makes for a quick and fluffy read for adults. I think this story has cemented my opinion about Patricia Briggs: if she published her shopping list, I'd probably pick it up, as I'm sure she would find a way to make it an engaging, uplifting, and thoroughly enjoyable read.