Monday, August 3, 2015

The Dragon Engine - Andy Remic

The Dragon Engine is a fantasy novel by Andy Remic. It’s got some interesting world-building, a party of squabbling misfits, high stakes action, and… quite a lot of blood.
 The novel takes place as a party of heroes come out of retirement, heading into a mountain range in search of riches.  Remic does a decent job of building out his initial world. The kingdom that these heroes inhabit is only sketched out, but depth is added in incidental dialogue between characters. 

There’s mention of villains from the past, wars which are slowly being forgotten,  loyalties and betrayals bubbling under the surface of the world.  Whilst the attention paid to this initial setting is a bit sparse, what is in place manages to feel vivid and alive.

The setting shines, however, when it explores the Dwarven caverns that our party of heroes are planning to loot. There’s a cavernous claustrophobia to the underside of the mountains, a feeling of a society turned in on itself, self-contained and self satisfied. At the same time, there’s a wonderful sense of scale – the towering gates of the Dwarves, the intricacy and baroque nature of their works, is emphasised in a narrative style which otherwise feels very spare and clean. There’s a grandeur in the Dwarven city, but also a sense of statis, and Remic manages to tease these out and combine them without overwhelming or browbeating the reader.

The characters are an interesting conundrum. They seem almost designed to fill roles – the axeman, the archer, the assassin, and so on. An adventuring party, off on a dungeon crawl. But the nature of these old heroes, the bonds that tie them together, are inferred and unspoken, and so we get hints of a more complex set of relationships through the cracks in the narrative. There’s moments of sparkling humanity in between the banter and the action. The axeman’s relationship with his ex-fiancée is  particularly well done, given a sense of emotional freight and a level of nuance that it would have been nice to see explored further, across all the character relationships. There are other quiet moments between the characters of course, and it seemed like they had a lot of room to grow, if given the chance – hopefully that’s something we might see in later books in the series.

The villains are a mixed bag. There’s a couple who feel a tad flat, more evil-for-the-sake-of-it than anything else. But there’s also a couple with more complex histories, especially once the Dwarven plot gets rolling. Whilst there’s still a lot of evil minions, there overlords have a bit more heft behind them. Much like the heroes, I’m hoping that this level of depth is something we might see strengthened and further explored in any later novels.

That said, the lion’s share of the book, when it’s not sliding character complexity in behind the reader’s back, is the plot. The quest into the mountains, to retrieve a mountain of dwarven gold, is wonderfully self interested. It also, of course, doesn’t go even slightly to plan. Remic manages to pace the opening of the story perfectly, dropping the reader enough context not to feel lost, then ramping up into moments of action which are genuinely gripping. As the text progresses, and the reader picks up more of the world, the action sequences become grander, and the stakes higher. 

There’s some great stuff here – Remic’s fight scenes are elaborate, visceral, and gripping. Sometimes it feels like they go a bit overboard – but at the same time, this is a story which knows what it’s providing, and is hitting that mark. There’s sword fights. Bowshot. At one point someone steps on a spine. There’s blood everywhere, and most of the people who get an axe deserve it. The stakes for the characters gradually increase, and Remic certainly had me invested by the end.

The novel as a whole is rapid, unrelenting, gleefully bloody, and happy to occasionally subvert expectations. I’d like to see the characters explored a little more, but was typically distracted by this when someone’s head fell off, or a chase began, or someone did a bit of cool magic, or…well, you get the idea. This is unreformed fantasy, filled with treasure, violence, the odd bit of magic – heroes you can understand, and villains you can hate. It succeeds very well at doing what it wants to do – and I’m hoping it’s going to expand on that as the series continues.

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