This is not the kind of book I usually enjoy.
The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter is brutal, dark and violent. It focuses on rage, vengeance, and anger. The first novel from a refreshing new voice in fantasy, Evan Winter examines what happens when someone allows their quest for revenge to plummet their soul to the darkest depths.
I don’t really like the grim aspects of a lot of modern fantasy. Generally, I prefer more whimsical stories of good conquering evil. People seem to really hate the idea that all of the main characters can survive the end confrontation and they want something more realistic, gritty, and emotional. They want their favorites to die.
I’m not like that.
Sometimes I want to read a story where good conquers evil with little cost. I get that’s not realistic and in real fights/wars people die. But I’m reading fantasy. You’re saying I am well within my rights to accept magic, dragons, ogres, orcs, wizards, and the underworld as completely legitimate, but I have to draw the line of realism at the lives of characters? That doesn’t make sense to me.
But that’s a topic for another day, I say it now to set up how this book might not have been written for me.
Without giving too much away, the story centers on a boy, Tau, who is training to be the best warrior in a world at constant war in order to fulfill his quest for revenge. The book takes Tau into the depths, really fulfilling the “descent into the underworld” portion of the hero’s journey, while he’s in, basically, a military academy to train.
Easily the best part of this novel is the pacing. Action-packed and fast-paced, the book rarely gives you time to breathe. And that works well for this story. From the beginning, we are forced into fights and, basically, kept there. It kept me reading and invested in the story.
It’ll be hard to reveal too much about this without spoilers, but I’ll do my best. At the end of the book, there is a battle before the last battle. I found myself not at all interested in that exchange. The entire time, this book is set up as a tale of one character vs another. That is the promise that is made. Yet, the whole thing takes place against this backdrop of an eternal war between these two people groups. I didn’t care much about that war and I got kind of bored when I read it. It formed the backdrop, but it wasn’t the story. So when I read those portions, I wasn’t as invested.
Usually, I don’t like the “learning at a special school for special people” trope. I think, since Harry Potter, it’s been done to death. But I let it slide for this plot. It allowed Tau to train and grow instead of doing the whole “character who is randomly good at this without working for it” trope. Tau worked for it and he worked hard. We see all of that happen and it felt rewarding to watch the payoff. Granted, I hated the way Tau did it, but we’ll get to that.
Overall, the plot and the pacing was the strongest part of this book for me. I was invested in every chapter.
However, the characters were the weakest part of this book.
Some of the more minor characters, like Tau’s instructor, a couple of his friends, and even one of his enemies were pretty interesting and had the potential to be developed and strong. Some of them drifted into one-note territory, but not all. Kellan Okar was a deep, motivated character that I really enjoyed.
On the other side, I despised Tau. I rooted for him at the start and pulled for him. But around halfway or a little beyond I went from hopeful, yet annoyed with his decisions, to outright hating him. I didn’t root for him. I thought he was an idiot, twisted, and irredeemable. I think Winter wanted me to feel that way about him, but I think he went too far. Part of the story is showing the evil ways revenge can destroy a person and I get that, but at what cost did he show it?
Normally, on the descent of a character arc, I dislike actions the character is taking, but want them to learn, turn it around, and ultimately succeed. I want the best for the character. I didn’t want that for Tau. I wanted him to fail. Past a certain point, there wasn’t anything redeemable in him. Towards the end, Winter tried to turn it around and make him somewhat likable, someone you’d want to root for, but it was too late at that point. And it becomes challenging to read a book centered around a person I don’t like and don’t want to succeed.
Also, the love interest, Zuri, had the potential to be so developed and deep, but I think Winter missed the mark with her. A lot of the time, she was an excuse to have an info dump. For reasons I won’t get into, Tau and Zuri have precious few moments together in the book. When it happens, we want to see their relationship and their deep connection. Instead, we have Zuri explaining the magic system to Tau, so I felt robbed out of those emotional moments. Ultimately, I felt like her character got cheated.
I do think the villain was well-done. He wasn’t evil for the sake of being evil, he had a purpose to his plans and I liked that.
The world was super fascinating. Based around African culture instead of the traditional Medieval Europe, the culture had a detailed caste system and a history that felt authentic, deep, and real. I loved the cultural aspects and how the characters attempted to navigate or subvert them.
Also, the magic system was intriguing. Darker than most, it had a unique twist that I loved. I just wish we could have seen more of it. This wasn’t a magic-focused book; it relied almost exclusively on sword play. The sword fights were cool, but the magic system was so interesting I wish we could have seen more of it. What I did see left me wanting more, so I guess that is a good sign for a great magic system.
I didn’t get a great sense of varying cultures between cities. Winter basically had two people groups with various social castes within one of those groups. The cultures seemed the same and underdeveloped no matter where we travelled in the world.
I wanted to like this book and I still want to like it. Aspects of it are truly amazing and wonderful. Winter is a fantastic author and storyteller with so much promise. A lot of other people adore this book. It connects with them and hits the notes it wants to hit.
But I’m not one that it connects with. I enjoyed it, mostly, but there were glaring issues in it that made it hard for me to fully love. Keep in mind my thoughts on the darker, more brutal tales when you read this review. I’m not someone expected to like this, but I still really enjoyed parts of it.
I’d give The Rage of Dragons a 2.5 out of 5.