phoenix art credit Sujono SujonoThe Dragon's Legacy (The Dragon's Legacy #1) by Deborah A. Wolf
Representation: Characters of Colour, Non-Traditional Gender Roles
on 4th April 2017
Genres: Epic Fantasy
The last Aturan King is dying, and as his strength fades so does his hold on sa and ka. Control of this power is a deadly lure; the Emperor stirs in his Forbidden City to the East, while deep in the Seared Lands, the whispering voices of Eth bring secret death. Eight men and women take their first steps along the paths to war, barely realizing that their world will soon face a much greater threat; at the heart of the world, the Dragon stirs in her sleep. A warrior would become Queen, a Queen would become a monster, and a young boy plays his bird-skull flute to keep the shadows of death at bay.
For my first Wyrd and Wonder review, I wanted to talk about one of my favourite books in all the world.
The problem is that I have no idea how to describe it.
Wolf has created an entirely new world that, while lacking the true otherness of, say, one of Karen Healey’s settings, is a strange and beautiful – and brutal – place that’s all too easy to get lost in. It’s a world where the sun is a dragon and his mate slumbers under the earth, kept asleep by the life-sapping magic sung by the Aturan rulers lest she break the planet like an egg by waking. It’s a world where the vash’ai, sapient, telepathic tusked tigers, forge psychic bonds with the worthiest of the Zeeranim, the matriarchal warrior-people who share the desert with them. It’s a world where women lie down with otherworldly beings to provide their Emperor with daeborn children for his armies. It’s a world that was almost destroyed by the cataclysmic Sundering a thousand years ago, and which is still feeling the effects when the story opens.
The worldbuilding is phenomenal. Although the Sindanese empire is vaguely reminiscent – at least to this white, Western reader – of East Asia, it’s a very passing and superficial resemblance; similarly, the Zeeranim might remind you of the Amazons, but only because that’s where all minds jump to when you hear ‘women warriors on horseback’ – they are entirely their own people. (And damn, do they have men.) And while this might not be a Healey world, it’s still got that deliciously dizzying factor as you’re thrown into the midst of cultures that don’t pull any punches – Wolf expects you to hit the ground running as the reader is inundated with alien terminology and phrases – like ehuani, a word that means there is beauty in truth, a concept that underscores every thread of every plotline – even if, with some, it’s only obvious in hindsight.
Ehuani is a central tenet of the Zeeranim, and maybe because the book opens in the Zeera desert, and the Zeeranim remain more-or-less the main characters of the story, it’s impossible for the reader not to take it in. The Zeeranim, this warrior-culture, are dying out – slowly, but it’s impossible to miss; the Sundering’s effects are perhaps nowhere more visible than in the Zeera. And out of this has grown this concept of ehuani, this unflinching facing of the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable or dangerous. I don’t remember any point where one of the Zeeranim lie by anything but omission, or tell any small white lies. There’s beauty in truth, even when the truth is ugly.
In many ways the Zeeranim are a ‘barbarian’ culture – they don’t live in houses, they don’t have kings and queens and palaces. They’re open in their violence and their hungers, their loves and their hatreds. (Mostly). And that means they clash hard with the Aturans, who are a more ‘typical’ fantasy people, one with castles and kings and cities – a people who are more familiar, more within the frame of understanding of at least this reader. But it’s not just the Zeera that’s dying; the Aturans may wrap the rotting limb in silks and satins, but it’s still rotting. They live – and lie – as though their kingdom will survive forever; the Zeeranim stare the future in the face and dare it to ‘show me yours!’
And that conflict – between harsh truth and willful blindness, between bluntness and suave lies, between wildness and luxury – is one that’s at the heart of this book in just about every way.
It’s terribly beautiful, and beautifully terrible. The descriptions are so lush, the writing practically decadent, even when the focus is the harsh and unforgiving Zeera desert. There are layers within layers within layers, stories that started before the book opens and weave their way through the main plotline; secrets and mysteries and magics that make your breath catch in your throat with both wonder and terror. Golden ram horns with death in their music; spider-mages; the realm of dreams, which is as beautiful as it is deadly, revealing awful and powerful truths via metaphor. There’s a dragon in the sky and another sleeping within the earth, and they’ll destroy the world if they ever come together. There are mages with diamonds set into their skins, bone flutes that make shadows dance, the king is slowly dying and the emperor is growing his army of half-fae warriors. (Fae isn’t the right word, but it’s the closest I can come without using words those who haven’t read the book won’t know). There are pearls and blades and blood, horses like silk and wind, masks upon masks upon masks. The mirrors here are blind; you have to look beyond them.
But honestly, the biggest, most important thing I can tell you is how this book made me feel.
Dragon’s Legacy feels like it was written just for me. And that’s strange for a few reasons; there’s no queer content, which is usually a prerequisite for me; it’s also arguably grimdark, which is a sub-genre I tend to steer well clear from. But this doesn’t feel grim to me, even when terrible things are happening. It’s raw and it’s real and it’s beautiful, it’s different, it’s a breath of fresh air from a world as real as our own. Is it a better world? No, I don’t think so. But it’s one with more wonder in it. It’s one that makes my heart sing and pound and dance. This isn’t a book you read; it’s one you fall into, plummet into, a book that swallows you up and makes you live it.
Run alongside the vash’ai with their voices in your mind. Hear the song of the Zeera as it howls across the sands. Salute Akari Sun-Dragon as he plunges over the edge of the horizon. Bare your teeth at the Nightmare Man, the shadows, the gilded lies. Watch the world slowly dying, and refuse to lie down and die with it.
That’s what Dragon’s Legacy captures, I think – that glorious, life-blazing defiance, the refusal to lie down and die, to give up, to not embrace everything life has to offer. It’s about fighting to survive because fuck any other option. It’s about shaping yourself into something greater, not just because that’s what’s necessary to survive, but because you are great, and you will make the world acknowledge that. And it’s about different kinds of greatness, strength, power; temporal, personality/charisma, physical, magical, will, and the ways in which they can intertwine and overcome each other. The ways in which one can grow into another. The evolution from insignificance to eminence.
This is a book – a series – that has flown so far under the radar it’s impossible to comprehend. Tor.com and Locus both forgot to include the final book of this trilogy when it was released this year, in their lists of new fantasy releases. I’ve run into no one else who knows this series, and I cannot understand why. This is a masterwork, a distillation of so many of the things that makes Fantasy, capital F, the best genre of all. When I included it in my Best of the Decade list last year, I said I’ve never read anything like it, and I doubt I ever will again, and I never, ever want it to end.
Every word of that is still true.