Dragon’s Blood

Dragon's Blood

I finally received one of my Secret Santa books from LibraryThing’s Christmas swap. Hooray! It’s a bit late for the festive season but I guess reviewing it will be a great way to ring in the New Year.

Dragon’s Blood was written by Jane Yolen and first published in 1982. It’s the first book of The Pit Dragon Chronicles and is followed by Heart’s Blood (1984), A Sending of Dragons (1987) and Dragon’s Heart (2009). The series is considered to be Yolen’s most popular and has been reprinted many times in a number of different languages.

The desert planet of Austar IV was once a place where convicts were sent in exile. Over many years, it developed into a society of its own, centred on a caste system of Masters and Bonders. The goal of every Bonder is to fill up the bag that they wear around their neck with gold. To do so is the only way to pay off their debt and become their own Master.

Fifteen year old Jakkin knows that the fastest way to fill his bag is to raise a dragon and train it to fight in the pits – a bloody sport that forms the backbone of Austar IV’s economy. However, the only way that he’ll ever own his own dragon is if he steals one from under the nose of his Master, Sarkkhan. Fortune soon smiles upon him when he discovers that one of Sarkkhan’s broods have been miscounted and so no one will notice the missing spare.

Hiding the snatchling away in a nearby oasis, he begins the difficult job of rearing it to adulthood. Although he is hampered by his inexperience, help comes in the form of Akki – a teenage girl with a surprising knowledge of dragon rearing. However, protecting the snatchling is far harder than Jakkin could ever have imagined. He must defend it from carnivorous Drakks and discovery by the other Bonders if he is ever to have a chance at winning his freedom.

Before I begin, I think that I should just note that this novel isn’t really suitable for younger teens. It’s definitely one of those books that parents should take a look at before passing on to their children. There are frequent references to drug use and prostitution (though the latter is never depicted graphically). In addition to this, the story is rather violent in places. Although there are no human fatalities, dragons are not so lucky and their deaths and maimings can be rather gruesome. You have been warned.

I can see on Goodreads that some people do rate this novel rather highly but it wasn’t really the story for me. It’s one of those novels where I enjoyed the ideas behind it far more than the execution. I really did like the idea of a society built around gambling on dragon cock-fights. It’s a bit different to the usual faire that you find in YA dragon stories. From the blurb, I was hoping for something more in the vein of The Scorpio Races – a fantasy slice-of-life story set in a world where humans and dangerous fantasy creatures coexisted.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t what I got. It’s not that the story was boring. It was actually a pretty quick and easy read, but it just failed to engage me. The writing was all a little flat and lacked any real sense of passion. There were characters and they did things, but I didn’t feel for any of them.

My first issue was with the world building. While the ideas behind Austar IV were interesting, the story never developed them far enough. A lot of what I understood about the world was rather heavy-handedly exposited in the eleven page introduction which read like a geography text book. The story barely shows anything of the world beyond the nursery and a brief climatic trip to the pits. It’s very easy to forget that it’s set on a different planet as the science fiction themes are so light. We don’t learn anything about the structure of the world at large. There are no politics or sense of policing. I couldn’t believe that there seemed to be no crime in a world where everyone had big bags of gold hanging around their necks!

The narrative also frequently raised concepts or used unique words without fully explaining them. In an immersive fantasy novel I always find this a problematic as it distances the reader from the action, just leaving them wondering what they’ve just read. An example of this is the word “fewmet”, which Wikipedia tells me was a common turn of phrase in the Middle Ages. This word is used frequently by characters in the novel, sometimes uttered like a curse and other times in reference to the dragons. I got in my head at first that this referred to some kind of parasite. It took me half the book to realise that they were actually talking about dung.

I also found the treatment of the dragons in the novel to be equal parts fascinating and grotesque. While Yolen’s dragons are pretty traditional and at times seem strikingly similar to those in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, I did enjoy learning about how the Bonders cared for the creatures. The methods for calming them, the need to speak to them in Old English (although the why of this is never explained), the way that they laid their eggs – Yolen had put a lot of thought into making them seem realistic.

Yet the treatment of these magnificent beasts just set my teeth on edge. Yes, I’m fully aware that they are fantasy creatures in a made-up setting but, within the story, they’re just constantly abused. It’s pretty clear that the dragons are far more intelligent than dogs but this doesn’t stop people from hitting them with sticks and cattle prods, culling the runts and forcing them to battle in vicious cock-fights. Even Jakkin, who constantly tells his dragon that it’s beautiful, really only cares about its fighting prowess. He is upset by any weakness that it shows and doesn’t even bother to find out its gender or name the creature until the very end of the story. No matter how much he claims to care for his dragon, it doesn’t make him hesitate before sending it into a potential fight to the death.

Yet the story’s biggest disappointment for me was its characters. Jakkin was definitely the best of the lot. I didn’t really dislike him (in fact, I sometimes admired his drive to winning his freedom fairly) but he was still rather forgettable. He was also prone to behaving incredibly childishly and naively so it was easy to forget that he was supposed to be fifteen. He didn’t even seem to be able to comprehend the motives of people around him, completely misjudging certain characters and never quite grasping Akki’s desire to live free of any man (even though it closely mirrors his own philosophy).

The other characters were far less interesting. Sarkkhan was pretty detestable, prone to even offering up his family members as Bonders to other men, but the most disappointing character for me was Akki. As the only major female character (most of the rest were just clumped together in the prostitute category), I really wanted to like her. I admired the fact that she wouldn’t accept charity as she wanted to carve her own freedom. Unfortunately, she got no development. She existed purely to be Jakkin’s love interest – a relationship that didn’t really grow over time but instead just sort of sprang up at the very end of the novel.

Well, I don’t really have much more to say about this one. It was okay for a light read but there really wasn’t much of substance to it. Despite some nice ideas, the world building was a bit shallow and the characters very forgettable. Fans of dragon stories may get a kick out of it but there are far better YA fantasies out there.

Dragon’s Blood can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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