I’ve read Mrs. Bertin’s work for the prior 10 years. After waiting for about a decade for the third book in the trilogy, and having reports last year and in 2007 of her possibly finishing the series, passing away, or discontinuing her writing career, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that she was nearly finished, and that the book was published this last November.
Warning: spoilers below for those who haven’t read the full series.
My first impression was that the writing quality had improved. The Last Dragonlord, though enjoyable, had languorous prose that often could ramble on as Joanne set the stage for her world, detailing some of the nations, the origins of the weredragons who are the focus of the series, as well as the nature and pervasiveness of magic. She also detailed the hatred of some for the Dragonlords, individuals who were born with souls of dragon and human, split in half and twinned together, creating creatures who could transform from human to dragon and back, with their other halves (soul-twins) set into another body which they inexorably seek to complete themselves.
Aside from the interesting philosophical perusal of Mrs. Bertin’s thoughts, it created a genuinely interesting world with romance, adventure, danger, betrayal and loss. You also see elements of redemption, as all but the ultimate villain have some redeeming characteristics, and more than one person meets their end, or near demise by the book’s conclusion.
Dragon and Phoenix continues the series, albeit leaving the plot on a very unexpected direction. Joanne weaves a tale taking motifs of China, the Far East, as well as hints of Indian Ocean and Native American cultures that tells a tale of far-off lands, and bespeaks of a reimagining of the Age of Exploration, as Europeans ventured out to lands different, strange, with different cultures often appearing inscrutable and unknown.
I enjoyed Dragon and Phoenix. Although at the time I had not studied foreign cultures extensively (many of the names seem to be direct analogues of Japanese, Vietnamese, and various Chinese dialectical names), upon re-reading it, it lacked much of the drama and scale that I had enjoyed upon it’s first reading nearly a decade ago. Joanne Bertin is a character author, not primarily a world-builder. She weaves tales around people, and although she does go to lengths to detail settings and events, since the primary view is of individuals from the Five Kingdoms, with the centroid of the story focused there, despite extensive POV time from various Jehanglan and native cultures from the continent of the Phoenix, the story is left unconcluded, with a nascent civil war, a new species of dragon, and a loss of a score of truedragons all unresolved at the conclusion of the story.
Indeed a major question left unanswered in the first novel of the series, The Last Dragonlord is made more obvious: why are there now 2 unforeseen Dragonlords, not just one? Given the emphasis on Seers in the novel, vision quests and other mystic paraphernalia, the lack of answer to these questions is at best confusing, and at worst indicates a lack of interest in forcefully concluding the novel.
(Bard’s Oath Spoilers below)
Bard’s Oath takes place after the events of Dragon and Phoenix. Several of the major characters, including Linden Rathan, Maurynna Kyrissaean and Shima Ilyathan return from the previous novel as key players, with Bard Otter Heronson and Raven Redhawkson playing roles driving the plot. Shima, though a Dragonlord now, play a lesser more side-kick role, as he is the only one of his land to explore the Five Kingdoms, and the only native of the continent of the Phoenix abroad in the north where the Dragonlords owe their home, as well as the truedragons.
However, although taking place temporally after the events of Dragon and Phoenix, little is adduced to those events of significance to the plot. The whereabouts of Shei-Luin Ma Zhi and Xahnu Ma Zhi are never discussed, the reason for the widespread Seeing ability of diverse species and races is not attested to, though obviously this would have enormous bearing on the world if it were as powerful as in the second novel. The propensity for lies and deceit, despite it nearly killing truehumans and Dragonlords alike in both previous novels is never questioned nor even discussed; it is assumed that children and adults, male and female, young and old have vested interests in dissembling and covering up the truth, never mind that a single open discussion would release most of the plot’s drama; mum is the word in this world.
It is not so much the fact that lying and deceit is so commonplace, as no one even questions why a small girl would deign take revenge on a man in his 50s or older in the novel. Nor is this propensity even countered, or seen to cause as much trouble as it did; although there are certainly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, no one seems to notice that their own faults lead to the vast amount of carnage unless in one of the ‘bad’ characters.
From The Last Dragonlord where Linden’s recklessness nearly kills Maurynna, to Dragon and Phoenix where the folly of the truedragons leads to destruction, to Bard’s Oath where Leet’s folly leads to chaos and murder, moral consequences have a chilling inevitability, and revenge and deceit are par for the course, no matter how foolish they may openly appear, no one steps aside and says “Perhaps we should stop lying and backstabbing each other and keeping so many secrets?”
The level of lack of discourse between friends, after two novels worth of learning the importance of communication, if not between strangers, but at least between comrades seems lost on even the Dragonlords, who fail to keep each apprised even when circumstances would indicate it would be the first thing they would do. It is not until the conclusion of the novel that most characters have a general idea of what is going on, and even then the full aftermath is never detailed.
This is my primary complaint about Mrs. Bertin’s works: for all the reflectance on medieval and pagan themes, with talk of votaries, gods, monsters and dragons, the setting is of an extremely immoral land where pride and might rules, and though relatively impartial, Dragonlords deal in the same deceit and misdirection as those with lesser lifespans. Though they are not malevolent; magic used by humans, especially greedy or power-hungry humans tends to be so, they are not disposed to either sharing enough details to aid more weredragons even knowing the symptoms of when First Change would take place, nor of disseminating their vast knowledge of the danger and ignorance of magic to the humans, despite magic being one of the few things that could threaten them.
Additionally there is the issue that each novel has dealt, in situ with events that were not really even mentioned previously. No Beast Healers or Healworts are mentioned in the previous two novels as I did my reading for the new release. The fallout of events in Jehanglan is not noted, despite the obvious fact that Shima, although having allegience to Dragonskeep now, would have great concern for the events happening in the Phoenix continent, rather than the Five Kingdoms aside from Dragonskeep.
Events from The Last Dragonlord have much more pertinence, as many of the Cassorins, from Prince Rann to Lady (now Duchess) Beryl make appearances. Although these events happened several years ago, they are in the Five Kingdoms, and it is apparent that Mrs. Bertin has much more facility writing these characters realistically, than ‘far-off’ lands.
Although the plot-line is more focused, the characters and prose better written, and the novel tighter, I cannot give this review more than 3 stars. The writing, though better, and obviously evolved over the 10-year span of its conception, lacks the same voice for characters such as Linden and Otter, who sound, in my mind’s ear like different people. The hardcover version has excellent paper and a better typefont, but this also contrasted with my experience of the mass-market paperbacks of the first two novels (this is not a substantive complaint, but it didn’t help immerse me in the novel either.)
Mrs. Bertin is a published author, with vivid imaginings of a different world from our owns. However from incongruity of the series, with the previous novel essentially incomplete, and an entire storyline (that of Pod and the Healworts) effectively shunted for use in a possible sequel, or possibly not, I cannot give this review 4 or 5 stars.
At the current price of $10 off, it is a reasonable pick up for an avid reader of fantasy, particularly dragon fantasies. Indeed, this was the reason I first bought the initial book in the series so long ago. On the other hand, it is disappointing that, given such a huge scale of the world, we have essentially a personal affair/scary story/murder mystery-except-the-book-cover-tells-you-enough-to-figure-the-plot-out-without-reading. The ‘magic’ in the story is not explained extensively, and there is a large sum of information on plants and animals that, though interesting, will not have much meaning for a modern reader, especially one not interested in herbology or horticulture.
I would cautiously suggest picking up the novel. It can be a stand-alone read, and even could work sufficiently as a duology, but overall there are better authors out there, and I stand as a disappointed former fan who likely will not be reading Mrs. Bertin’s works in the future. The lack of plot conclusions, or clear consciences on the part of the ‘heroes’, as well as open admiration of paganism leaves me unable to truly cheer for these characters anymore, their admirable loyalty notwithstanding.