Friday, February 23, 2024

Microreview: Dragons of Deepwood Fen by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Introducing a new fantasy world, filled with the intrigues of an empire, its unwilling vassal state, a grasping church, and oh yes, dragons.

Rylan Holbrooke has a problem. Well, a bunch of problems. He is the illegitimate son of the local governor. He has a rapport with dragons, in fact he is a dragon singer, able to calm and work with the dragons that the empire relies on. But he is also a thief and scoundrel stealing from said empire as well.  His checkered nature, his straddling (however very uncomfortably) of two worlds puts him in position to notice the threads of a dreadful and dangerous plot. A plot that will change the vassalized realm of forest known as The Holt forever. And, perhaps, the entire Empire as well.

Rylan's story, and the stories of his fellow protagonists, are the matter of Bradley Beaulieu's The Dragons of Deepwood Fen.

Rylan is our primary protagonist and gets the most screen time out of all of the characters we see. He's caught between two worlds and trying to balance his lives in both worlds, and the author aptly shows his inner and outward struggles in handling that. This is best shown in the points of conflict--his lack of desire to have anything to do with the Red Knives except when forced, and then later, on the opposite site, the very prickly relationship he has with his half-siblings in his father's house. Where does, in fact, Rylan fit in and feel himself, the best? Alone, flying over the holt with his dragon, and, it is shown, nowhere else. 

Our other major protagonist is Lorelei. Lorelei is an Inquisitor (investigator) for the Empire, and with her queer partner Creed, she, like Rylan, goes from her day job to being wrapped up in the tendrils of the conspiracy and danger to the Holt and beyond. Starting off with investigating a drug smuggling ring, Lorelei starts to learn that there is something rotten in the Empire city of Ancris. Lorelei is a fascinating character and perhaps even slightly more interesting than Rylan on a character level. Rylan is interesting because of his spending time in two worlds. Lorelei is more connected, with her partner, with her mother. She also very clearly has what we would call undiagnosed ADHD with a side order of social anxiety disorder. We don't use and see those terms of course, but Lorelei is so clearly not a social creature, is always leaping ahead in her mind, and really is only herself when she is working on a puzzle or problem, in limited company. She does a lot of the intellectual heavy lifting to see the scope of the problem. 

Third, and to a lesser extent, is Rhiannon. Rhiannon is the youngest of the three, and has magical potential and power that she herself does not quite understand. Also, being young, she is also the one who is the most manipulated out of these three characters. This makes sense, but it makes for sometimes a bit of a frustrating read when she is on stage. Also, hers is the point of view that seems to have the most flashbacks to them. While these flashbacks provide extremely important context and development of the byzantine and labyrinthine "plots within plots" that the novel revels in, it means that as a result, that Rhiannon feels like she has less agency than Lorelei and Rylan, and is much more of a narrative device and tool than an actual character that I could really feel for. I could imagine (while holding my nose thanks to his odious smoking) talking with Rylan and meeting his dragon. I could definitely imagine getting to know (carefully!) the shy and introverted and socially awkward Lorelei. Rhiannon, by contrast, I have a far less good hold on, as a character in my mind. 

There are a couple of other viewpoint characters (this is epic fantasy, and so we have a good half dozen of them in all), but I actually want to hold my fire in discussing them, because it is very easy to get spoilery regarding them. Suffice it to say, Beaulieu is firmly in the Point of View Solves Problems school of writing, and we get other sides to the conflict through these characters. We also get some rather unusual twists regarding these characters and their nature, and once again, the author gives our characters very understandable, and sometimes rather painful flaws to deal with.

So given a thick fantasy novel with a complex plot, where does one start? For one thing, let's lay the groundwork. Refer to the map in the book (this is a case where audio is a weaker medium, because the map is definitely important here). The Holt is not part of the Empire at the heart of this world, it is an uneasy vassal state with a government that is a messy hybrid of control from the central Empire and local magnates having their say, with the current holder of the position, Rylan's father, about to face a regular vote of confidence. It feels like a somewhat more aristocratic and less monarchist version of the Roman Empire era Kingdom of Armenia. It's not officially part of the Empire, but its government certainly is overshadowed by the nearby Empire.

In point of fact, the right model is surely a flavor of the Roman Empire. Latin terms and names abound in the book. The Five rulers of the empire are called a Quintarchy. Lorelei's last name is Aurelius.  The center of Ancris is called the Quadrata. There are legionnaires as the military force. And so on.  Fortunately, as witness Lorelei itself, this is a far far less patriarchal Romanesque world than the real thing. Lorelei is not unusual for being a woman, she is unusual in her lack of social skills and the convoluted method by which she became an inquisitor in the first place. We see women in power and authority throughout the Empire, and the Holt as well. 

The plot of the novel does move slower than what is good for it. Beaulieu, even with the shorthands above, has a lot to try and get off the ground. So a lot of the novel has Rylan bustling about, and Lorelei wrapped up in her police procedural storyline that proves far more important than even she realizes. So this fantasy novel adds that as one of the balls that it is trying to juggle along with the hybrid low fantasy world of a lot of the work (a notable touchstone here might be the world of Joe Abercrombie except with significantly more magic and less gore). It does feel like its a while before Lorelei truly gets out of her storyline and really into the main action, or the main action in general. Beaulieu lays down a lot of the world in the time, including, of course, dragons.

So let's talk about the dragons, given the title of this work. There are two schools of dragons, and two supergroups of them. The metallics, based on metals, are the dragons used by the Empire. They are magically controlled and coerced, the Empire turning to raw power. This is what makes Rylan so valuable, his Dragonsinger nature means he has a better understanding of his charges than even the dragon's owners in many cases. It is a very hierarchical, dominance based system (I wish that Rylan made his feelings about this system planer earlier, but he eventually vocalizes just how horrid he thinks this whole thing is). 

By contrast, a rebellious faction living in the Holt, the Red Knives, and as mentioned above, secretly, Rylan, use a magical ritual of bonding to tie a rider to their sragon. The dragons of the holt are non-metallic, and their scales are often used for alchemical reagents. There is a much more sure pairing of dragon and human, and the connections to McCaffrey are obvious (also, Robin Hobb and Tracy Hickman, among others). Given how fraught the first meetings can be, I was also reminded of the movie Avatar, as Jake must bind and tame a flying mountain banshee, and then that bond is permanent.  The Rylan-Vedron connection and their relationship is one of the highlights of the book. 

In all, yes, Beaulieu does deliver on the dragons, and really, given all the intrigue and characters as given above, the prose and the feel of the book really do achieve lift-off when Beaulieu is writing passages with his dragons front and center. Be it a glorious aerial battle of dragon versus dragon, or the quieter ministrations of Rylan doing his job as Dragonsinger, Beaulieu clearly wrote this novel with the dragons front and center. 

I give good credit to Beaulieu for going beyond the usual settings in creating The Holt. Empires and colonialism are complex and complicated subjects. Rather than going for an occupied province, or a land outside the boundaries of the Empire entirely, The Holt is instead a vassal and dependency. This is inherently an uneasy and uncertain status for it and its inhabitants. It allows Beaulieu to have some of his cake and eat it too. They aren't quite part of the Empire, but the Kin (the inhabitants of this region) are certainly connected to the Empire. Rylan himself is half-Kin and suffers prejudice, particularly from the Empire, for his nature. It helps give depth and feeling for both Rylan and the Holt itself. I mentioned Hobb above, and I do believe that the Rain Wilds were an obvious inspiration for the forested vastness of The Holt, although more temperate in climate.

I do have some thoughts about other aspects of the worldbuilding here, ones that frustrated me.  Fortunately, not the map itself or the basic geography. There are no rivers that fork unexpectedly, or anything that violates basic conventions of geology. I am less clear on something that really isn't touched on and I wished it were. This is a novel, as discussed above, that is all about the vassalized but not incorporated Holt and how it chafes under that indirect control, and the interesting ideas that entails. We've plenty of works set in empires, and in "barbarian" (sic) lands, but the polder and borderlands of vassalized and client-kings, is a setting we get little of. But my question is, just where is the heartland of the Empire? It's not entirely clear. We have these important cities in the mountains, and we have the fivefold Quintarch structure to the government representing these five cities. But are the mountains truly their heartland? It sure seems so, and if that is the case, he missed a big worldbuilding opportunity. The Holt is very different than the mountains, but we never get a sense of the sense of place of those mountains. We definitely get a feel for the Holt, as mentioned above. But an Empire built and developed in those mountains, well, the denizens are sure to have opinions about lowland forests as a terrain. I've mentioned before how much Beaulieu has modeled his empire on the Roman, right down to the Latinate names. Well, the Romans complained incessantly about the cold north of England and Scotland, the forests of Germany, the desolate heat of Syria, the weirdness of ancient Egypt. And yes the Romans went there anyway. But this Empire feels pale by comparison. In making the Holt as such a rich tributary vassal and place for the action to take place, the Empire itself as a place suffers. Ancris, one of the five capitals, suffers in comparison to the Holt as a setting. 

The ending of this novel doesn't really have an offramp if you want to one and done the series. The immediate threat and problem, once the true scale of what is going on is revealed, is thwarted but not defeated. All of the major characters have gone through a lot, and the stage is set for the next novel, the next round in the conflict. Despite my reservations above, I did enjoy the novel, as I have enjoyed Beaulieu's work going back to his earliest novels. Perhaps with worldbuilding under him, the second volume can move from the strength of the last quarter of the novel (where things ramp up) into a stronger second book.


The Math


  • Diverse and interesting fantasy world
  • Rylan and Lorelei make a strong two hander of the primary protagonists and viewpoints
  • Some issues with the worldbuilding and pacing. 

Reference: Beaulieu, Bradley P.,  Dragons of Deepwood Fen, [Daw, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.