Author: Evan Winter
Series: The Burning Book 1
Publication Date: July 16, 2019
Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars
I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher.
I can’t tell you how much I want to read more African inspired fantasy. There are a handful of well known authors doing it, and many less known, but we need more. There are so many good stories to be told from an African themed perspective and we will all be better for having them in the world. Enter Evan Williams with his epic debut The Rage Of Dragons.
The Rage Of Dragons is an intense, thrilling, and brutal debut fantasy full of blood and vengeance. It kept me up at night. I didn’t want to put it down. I was reading until 2 AM. I just wanted to keep turning the pages. I didn’t want it to end. When it did I set it down, caught my breath, and wondered how long until book two. Evan Winter you’ve made me a fan.
“The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.
Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.” – Goodreads blurb
The story begins roughly two centuries in the past with the Omehi people invading a new land. Driven from their homeland across the sea they are trying to find a new home. When they come ashore they encounter the Hedeni, the people native to this new land; a people who don’t like being pushed aside. What develops is an ongoing, never ending war between these two peoples.
We are then introduced to story’s protagonist Tau. He’s a commoner, a man who won’t ever move up beyond his station unless he serves in the military. Only he doesn’t want to serve. He doesn’t want to live a life of danger and warfare. He would rather settle with the woman he loves and raise a family. The only problem is his society doesn’t work that way. He has a plan to make this work, until one day when it all comes crashing down. When those he loves are killed he sets out on a path of revenge and won’t let anything get in his way even if it means burning everything down around him.
I loved the world Winter created in The Rage Of Dragsons. It’s a bronze-age, Xhosa inspired world (I’m getting this from what I’ve read not because I’m a Xhosa expert) in which caste and warfare and magic figure prominently. I really enjoy reading non-western fantasy settings and cultures and the Omehi and Hedeni are a welcome addition to the genre. The bronze age setting offers a gritty and dangerous world to the reader. The low technology of the weaponry and armor helps to bring focus on the characters instead of distracting the reader with fancy accouterments that give them an edge. The only edge the characters have in this book is their skill, size, and ability with magic.
Speaking of magic let me touch on that a moment. I love Winter’s magic system. It’s one where only women have the ability to wield magic as a gift from the Goddess. A magic system in which they draw their powers from something akin to the underworld – a land of demons and death, and unleash it upon their enemies. In this world women are put through a test to determine their abilities and if evident are trained in a military school format and put into service with the army using their skills to fight the enemy, enhance the already significant abilities of male warriors, and most significantly of all…summon dragons.
Men are also tested when they come of age. If they perform well they go enter into a military school and then into military service based upon their caste and are trained to defend their people in the war against the Hedeni. If they perform poorly it is a stain on their honor and they return home to serve in varying capacities based on their caste.
The Omehi are a people whose culture is built around a caste system. There are the nobility and the commoners. Within each of those groupings there are sub-groupings that dictate roles within society. The only real way to change your role (and then only slightly) is through military service. Besides being a society built on caste, the Omehi are also a matriarchal. The ruler is a queen and beneath her are female governors. As I noted above only women have the ability to wield magic while the military is made up of men and led by men they are in service to the queen.
As you may have noted by now Omehi society is built around war. This is because they’ve been fighting a near endless war for two centuries and before that were driven from their homeland by The Cull. The shaping of society around warfare makes for a very militaristic mindset among the people, a defensive mindset in their eyes but combative nonetheless. It’s this societal focus on war that leads to the tension and conflict for the main character and drives the narrative.
And oh what a narrative! Its fast paced and filled with action. If you like slow burns this is not the book for you. Winter establishes this in the prologue with an intense battle scene that builds and builds to a raging conclusion setting the pace and tone of the book. It sets the parameters of the narrative that the rest of the story fleshes out and builds upon. This is one of the best action prologue’s I’ve come across in years.
The pacing never really lets up. I mean yeah Winter slows it here and there to allow you to pause and catch your breath, but narrative as a whole is quick and fierce. Winter’s writing is sharp and he has an eye for painting vivid action scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat and turning pages. At the same time he can dial it down and offer glimpses of peace and longing that give the reader and his characters hope if only briefly. But once you’ve caught your breath he dials the intensity back up and you’re just along for the ride.
At its core The Rage Of Dragons is a story of revenge. That’s a theme found in many, many books and let’s be honest there isn’t much new about revenge. But revenge does seem to make for a compelling read, and one we seem to come back to time and time again. Here Winter takes that theme and adds to it consequence. Specifically that the decisions you make and the actions you take have consequences, and sometimes you really can’t come back from them. Sometimes you have to live with them and there is no making them better. Sometimes…or rather often, they impact others in very significant ways; harsh ways; fatal ways. The question then is what do you do in response? This interrelated theme of revenge and consequence is what drives Tau. It’s also what drives the larger narrative of the conflict in the story between the Omehi and Hedeni peoples, and gives the story its intense feeling.
Winter also works his way around something you don’t always see in fantasy, the effects of trauma and PTSD. Now he doesn’t label it as such, but it’s there. The world his characters inhabit is violent and unforgiving. It’s only natural that the people inhabiting this world would have to deal with trauma. Winter illustrates this in the reactions of his characters, in the way they respond to each other and their world, and in the decisions they make. To me this added something real to the narrative that I think should be included in pretty much every fantasy story.
I finished this book a week ago and I’m just now catching my breath. It is definitely one of my favorite books of the year. Winter has made a case for himself as a new talent in fantasy literature who I will recommend to everyone. This is the kind of action fantasy I long for; fantasy that is intense, and brutal, and gritty and doesn’t let up the pace; a book that will grip you and never let go. I can’t wait for book two!
Note: Something I didn’t really touch on in the review above is that The Rage Of Dragons was initially self-published. I did not read that edition of the book so I cannot compare it. I do think it’s important to point out that this is yet another instance of a major publisher (specifically Orbit) seeking out and publishing really good self-published material. It’s a testament to the quality of self-published fantasy out there, and Orbit’s desire and willingness to seek it out and share with a wider audience.