Quick thoughts: A solid fantasy debut by a new indie author.
Fantasy books are often like warm blankets on a cold night. There is something familiar and reassuring in them that comforts the reader, allowing him or her to escape to a world where anything is possible. Yet the very things that make these books so comforting also have the potential to be suffocating. I imagine it’s rather hard to come up with an original story when the framework of classical fantasy is so rigidly defined, and there’s usually not much sympathy from readers when an author tries to be original by breaking the rules. It then becomes a game of how best to bend rather than break the rules. The Dragon Whisperer, Vanessa Ricci-Thode’s debut fantasy novel published by Iguana Books, succeeds in bending a few rules of the classic fantasy genre without breaking them, but my overall opinion is somewhat mixed.
The most visible stake in the ground—at least in terms of departing from classical fantasy—is the emphasis on female characters. Dionelle, a young woman whose “natural” immunity to fire thrusts her into the role of an envoy between humans and dragons, is the protagonist of the piece. Of the three main conflicts in the book, two involve female antagonists and the other is about Dionelle’s struggle to make her husband, Reiser, understand her perspective. The dragon realm is also firmly established as a matriarchal society, where only females have any real power or authority.
In many ways, that strong feminine aspect was a refreshing break from a genre that tends to circumscribe female roles, but I also don’t think it went far enough. The story was still rooted in a patriarchal society where a king is monarch and a husband is expected to be the head of his house. More than once, this juxtaposition of modern feminist attitudes with medieval patriarchal assumptions created a quandary for me. I found it difficult to understand, for example, how Dionelle could expect Reiser to support her quest for personal fulfillment when she was the product of an arranged marriage. There was also a fair amount of irony to be found in the fact that men are ultimately responsible for saving the day. The potential was there to create a real sense of empowerment and self-realization, but it ended up being washed away in a sea of patriarchal norms.
Another step back from the standard fantasy novel, although more subtle, was the internal nature of the quest. Yes, there was some element of saving the world from impending doom, but Dionelle’s personal struggles took on a much greater importance than any other story element. Bringing marital struggles, spiteful sisters and career aspirations to the fore was an interesting gambit, but my personal taste definitely leans more towards the traditional elements of action and adventure.
The strongest element of the novel, in my opinion, was Ricci-Thode’s handling of the dragons, although this really got a lot less time than it deserved. Rather than selfish beasts obsessed with gold, these dragons are creatures obsessed with beauty. It’s a slight twist that works very well, and serves to make the dragons’ motivations and behaviours quite believable. Unfortunately, the plot had a tendency to veer away from this strong suit on more than one occasion, and I believe the story suffered because of it.
Although my personal response was rather mixed, The Dragon Whisperer is a respectable debut. Moreover, Iguana Books did a bang-up job of publishing, with a gorgeous matte black cover that simply begs to be read. A solid effort overall.
Dionelle was born unique: she is immune to fire. Shortly after marrying Reiser, Dionelle’s unique talents catch the attention of a wicked noblewoman, Lady Karth, who is in need of a new dragon whisperer. Dionelle is crudely thrust into the position, but shows a natural talent for dealing with dragons. Reiser is against the idea, but Dionelle loves what she does and grows fond of the dragons, breeding tension between her and Reiser.