Pros: Complex, epic, human
Cons: Maybe a little slow/wordy in places
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
First published 11/4/2002
It’s been a little while since I read a fiction book. Of course, I haven’t been reading so many books in general lately. I guess I’ve been too busy with the writing side of things – which is a good thing! But a little over a week ago my husband and I made a rare trip to a mall, and we both caught a cold. By the time the night was over we were both feeling miserable. So what else can you do when you get sick, but pick out a good book and read?
That’s where Storm Constantine’s “Sea Dragon Heir” came in. I bought the book some time ago after reading a review of it. Not that long ago I found out there were two other books in the series, but I decided to wait to buy them until I found out whether I liked the first book. I guess you’ll be able to figure out how I felt about this book when I tell you that halfway through it, I ran off to order the next two books!
Caradore is the long-held land of the Palindrakes, a noble family with unusual talents and connections within their blood. The eldest son of each new generation is called the Sea Dragon Heir, and he and his wife (called the Sea Wife) hold a special compact with the sea-dragon Foy, and Foy’s three temperamental daughters.
A new empire has risen in the world, inspired by the fire-god Madragore and his “spiritual children,” a particular line of men-become-emperors. This empire conquers Caradore and subjugates the Sea Dragon Heir and his power, forcing them into the service of the empire. Rather than allow her line to die, the Sea Wife allows this subjugation to occur, hoping and planning that her children’s heritage will rise again some time in the future.
Several generations later, a pair of twins is born to the Palindrakes. Valraven is the latest Sea Dragon Heir, although he is unaware of this heritage. His sister, Pharinet, loves and adores him – and were fate to go as it should, she would become his Sea Wife. But fate is not so kind, and neither are the lusts and wants of men and women. Pharinet and Valraven’s family, and a nearby family, have already decided on the weddings that shall take place: Valraven will marry Pharinet’s childhood friend Ellony, and Pharinet will marry Ellony’s brother, Khaster.
Pharinet and Valraven’s older sister Everna decides that it’s time to initiate Pharinet into the Sisterhood, a group of women who keep alive Foy’s worship within Caradore. Ellony shall be inducted at the same time. And that’s when everything really starts to go wrong…
Plots and Schemes and… Humanity?
“Sea Dragon Heir” is, in some ways, a sterling example of your standard epic fantasy. Plots and schemes abound. Magic taints and tinges all. You’ll find politics aplenty within its pages. Generations-old schemes are coming to fruition, and sometimes from unlikely angles. People ruin each other’s lives. Ambitions cut swaths through families. Everyone has an agenda.
And yet, this book also goes far beyond the standard epic fantasy. Everything is seen through a distinctly human eye. What’s at stake is not an abstract heritage – it’s the lives and loves of perfectly normal people. The pawns are not simple pieces on a board – they’re people with thoughts and secrets and desires of their own. And just when you think you know who the players are, who should end up with whom, and how things will work out – human foibles throw a monkey-wrench into the whole affair.
It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful. It’s what would happen if you took real people with all the faults that entails and wrapped them up in an epic world with changeable magics and huge armies. It’s eminently believable, which is something it can be hard to say about many epic fantasies!
Angles and Lenses
Yet, the humanity of the characters is not even the greatest part of this book. The most amazing part is the perspective – the angles through which lives are glimpsed. The lenses through which people are seen. The story is told in third person, but, in a very subtle way, it’s always told from a certain person’s perspective. At first that’s largely Pharinet’s perspective. Then a certain part comes from Khaster’s perspective. About half-way through the book, we gain a new perspective entirely from a completely new character. Then a letter from someone provides yet a new perspective. Information gleaned from various characters provides further and different perspectives.
Why is this so amazing? Because I don’t think there’s a single person or matter that’s shown from only one perspective over the course of the book. And because of that, the characters become infinitely more interesting and infinitely more human. A character who seems relatively sympathetic and understandable from one person’s point of view seems less sympathetic from someone else’s. Someone who seems dignified and magical from one person’s perspective seems pathetic from another’s. Someone who seems evil from one group’s perspective seems loving and caring from someone else’s. And it’s almost never a case of one person being wrong in their analysis of someone and someone else being right – it’s just that we all have different sides to us, and we show them to different people. And, of course, our own thoughts and opinions tinge our view of people.
It’s more subtle than it sounds in that simple explanation. It’s something that single-handedly elevates the book above most of the fantasy out there today. It prevents pretty much any character from being stereotypical or two-dimensional. And it leaves us with some interesting mysteries to ponder…
The Usual Warnings
First, “Sea Dragon Heir” includes explicit sex and implicit rape. They are not gratuitous, but obviously, they also aren’t for everyone. If they would bother you, don’t read the book. Second, this book is the first in a trilogy. While it actually stands alone quite well, I think, and is reasonably self-contained, it’s also obvious that there’s plenty more to come. If for some reason you really don’t want to buy the rest of the books, and hate leaving future plots unread, skip this book. I understand that the next books in the series are “The Crown of Silence” and “The Way of Light.”
This third bit isn’t really a warning, but most of the perspectives in this book (and many of the characters) are female. I liked that, but it did come as a bit of a surprise to me since the title of the book is “Sea Dragon Heir” and the heir is male, and the blurb about the book that I read made it seem like more of the book was about that character. If you aren’t interested in the female perspective, well, find a different book to read.
Fourth, while there’s plenty of war and battle as a backdrop to the events of the book, most of it is fairly distant. The book is about individuals, not armies. If you’re looking for stunning battle sequences, this isn’t the book for you.
I very much enjoyed my read of “Sea Dragon Heir” It’s an interesting book with remarkably human characters and a wealth of perspective. It was perhaps a bit slow and wordy in places (at times a little explanation-heavy), but not overly so (consider my rating to be 4.5 stars, I guess – hmm, I seem to be saying that a lot lately). I’m certainly looking forward to reading more books in the series!
One action with intent was worth a thousand beautiful words.