The silent dragon / Irene Radford
The silent dragon is the first book I read by this author, but it’s actually the 11th book set in this world. As a result, I had an experience kind of similar to when I read the Traitor spy trilogy. There was a lot I didn’t understand right away, but that actually served to make me enjoy the series more as it presented a more real seeming world.
Brief plot summary
Glenndon is an apprentice magician who has never spoken aloud. Throat injured by a childhood illness, he refuses to speak and communicates solely via telepathy. Growing up at the Forest University among dragons and other magicians meant that it was always possible to communicate with those around him without speech.
When Glenndon discovers he is actually the illegitimate child of the king and gets taken off to the capital, everything changes. Finding himself in a world where magic was until recently viewed with distrust at best he is forced to learn to function in a completely new society.
Things are further complicated by the reappearance of the dragon’s hated enemy, the Krakatrice. Bent on turning everything around them into desert, the krakatrice can only be fought by magicians. Glenndon and his half-sister, the princess Linda, must team up to discover who has been smuggling in the krakatrice eggs and stop them.
So how is it?
I really enjoyed reading Irene Radford’s Children of the dragon nimbus series. In every installment there are situations where, in a movie or TV show, people would let their petty squabbles create drama, but instead things get resolved reasonably. The evil seductress doesn’t suddenly become tempting to the young prince who has just left his love behind. The angsty teen, resentful at his parents and his more talented, more handsome older brother doesn’t fall prey to the temptations of easy power, but instead realizes that they’re doing this to themselves and it’s better if they just let it go. It’s never played for laughs, either. Not every emotional beat has a significant impact on the main plot. Chekhov’s gun is only rarely fired. The thing that distinguishes the “good guys” from the “bad guys” is more often than not that the “bad guys” are unable to forgive. They nurse their psychic wounds until they fester and lash out. Many of the “good guys” have very similar experiences to the “bad guys”. The distinguishing factor isn’t that they are better (as is standard for genre fiction) but that the good guys learn from their negative experiences and decide that they don’t want to inflict those experiences on others.
Another thing I really liked was that it’s a story that’s not about killing the bad guys. All this was enough to make me overlook some of the hokier aspects of the worldbuilding and the plot elements that didn’t totally make sense to me (although I hadn’t read the previous ten books set in that world so that’s not exactly Radford’s fault). In other books the characters react the way they do because the plot requires them to do so, even if it defies the characterization or motivation and the idea that violence has really serious consequences is addressed very well. It’s also a series that includes a great many characters who are vegetarians but doesn’t come down as a polemic on either side on the ethics of meat-eating.
I also liked that, for a “dragon story” the dragons themselves didn’t overwhelm the plot. I think this is partially due to the previous books in this world establishing the nature of the dragons, etc. more fully. I really appreciated that as it resulted in a story that rejected both the mythology of Tolkien and the grim pessimism of Martin or Abercrombie.
There are some cool portions that are written as a first-person narrative by the villain of each book. In the first book it’s not initially enough to identify them initially, but it provides interesting clues that build up gradually and help lend the antagonists more depth.
But as I said, there were some hokey elements. Sometimes it slipped into the stereotypical epic fantasy obsession with naming things that are similar enough to names for real-world things while being only slightly different. It’s something I find mildly annoying as the way it shows up here feels a little bit too much like name-dropping. Also, there are some weird things about the world that seem kind of pointless; in one country, wheels are forbidden.
There were a couple moments where things happened that didn’t really make sense to me. The appearance of Death personified in the third volume didn’t seem consistent with anything that had happened previously. I’m willing to chalk this up as a disadvantage of not having read the earlier series.
The thing that bothered me the most about the first volume, though, was that once Glenndon overcomes the various (mostly psychological) barriers to speaking out loud, there’s a huge shift in his character. My spouse picked out the book for me specifically because it promised a silent protagonist, and midway through that promise was broken. Still, there was enough going for it that I stuck with it and continued to read the series. It’s good and special in a way that’s really hard to explain or define.
In some ways, Children of the dragon nimbus is the fantasy novel exemplar of Steve Gaynor’s essay on legitimizing video game violence. Violence is there, for sure, but it is always significant and meaningful.
The children of the dragon nimbus series has a couple things going for it that will really attract some readers and put others off entirely.
It’s a series about magicians whose magical abilities don’t include the ability to shoot lightning or fireballs or spears of ice. Magic doesn’t exist for fighting, and the destruction wrought by magic are almost entirely side-effects of some other purpose.
As far as I can tell, the dragons are vegetarians, as are many of the main characters.
None of the main characters are “fighters”. The protagonists go to great lengths to avoid killing anyone and there are no fights with generic soldiers, thugs, or other bad guys. This is because, shockingly, the soldiers are human beings capable of forming their own judgments and asking themselves (to quote Mitchell and Webb) “are we the baddies?”
There are many, many moments that appear to foreshadow something sinister that then go unfulfilled.
Occasionally, words like “Tambootie” and “Yampion” show up in the text.
So it’s not something I’d recommend to non-genre readers, and it’s not something I’d recommend to someone who is looking for more Game of thrones or Sword of truth. In some ways, this series is the polar opposite of Goodkind’s work in that many of Richard’s characteristics that are presented as strengths by Goodkind are exactly what make the villains here villainous.
For fans of Trudi Canavan or Miranda Klasky or those who want to see what the genre can do when it’s not obsessing over endless war this is a perfect recommendation.