Dearest wonderful people,
Look, I have something I need to tell you. I know I said I liked dragons. And I do like dragons. I like them a lot. But I don’t like them, y’know, sexually. In fact, it’s a bit outside my comfort zone.
Love ‘n’ hugs,
Dragon Actually confused me straight off the bat by being two novellas rather than one novel. This meant I got about 60% of the way through the whole volume under the impression I’d only read 60% of a single book. And since love had already been declared, orgasms accumulated and baddies vanquished, I had no idea what was supposed to happen next – short of the protagonists sailing to America and arguing about nothing, like in The Flame & The Flower. But then, while I was too busy being emotionally disorientated to notice, Dragon Actually wrapped up and I was plunged into Chains & Flames, which is a sort of prequel to Dragon Actually.
So, I’ll start with Dragon Actually: Annwyl The Bloody (so named because of her prowess, rather than her finesse, on the battlefield) is at war with her evil brother. The book opens with her getting seriously injured and rescued by Fearghus the Destroyer, a dragon who sweeps her off to his lair and looks after her while she recovers. He becomes almost instantly obsessed with her and decides to help her defeat her brother by training her in combat. In this setting, dragons can conveniently turn human (otherwise I would not like to think of the mechanics of this relationship) and, for reasons that never entirely make sense, Fearghus neglects to tell Annwyl that the arrogant knight he sends to do sexy sparring with her is, well, him. Eventually the truth comes out, Annwyl goes back to her army and, with the help of Fearghus and his family, lays the smack down on her brother. There is then some pointless faffing around but the love of woman and dragon prevails and happy endings are duly dispensed.
I would characterise Dragon Actually as mostly harmless. It’s unabashedly light-hearted and entertaining, and occasionally quite funny, but – for me, as a fantasy reader – it was just a bit shallow. I feel quite bad about this because it basically means I’m The Dude Who is Against Fun but, for fun to be effective, it needs to be taken seriously by someone, and I felt this was neither a satisfying fantasy novel nor a satisfying romance. I think part of the problem might be that historicals can get away with not providing much detail because it’s easy enough to fill in the blanks for yourself. We’ve all seen BBC costume dramas so we all know what the past is supposed to look like. It has carriages and Colin Firth in it. But if you move the action into an imagined realm, unless a modicum of thought goes into how things work, you’re going to very quickly end up in Nowherelandia
And Dragon Actually is very much set in Nowherelandia. There is generic fantasy stuff going on – wars, evil kings, places with funny names, vague references to the past, mysterious magic, wibble wibble – but it’s all basically scenery, and not very interesting scenery at that. I didn’t get any sense of this world as a real place, with a history that mattered. The conflict between Annwyl and her brother seems primarily an excuse for Annwyl to meet, and then get it on with, a dragon. And, please don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those fantasy readers who believe depth is conveyed by breadth and that it’s not ‘proper’ fantasy unless it’s 900 pages long and nothing happens for the first 700 of them. But I’d just finished Angel’s Blood which has action, romance, character development eroticism and cracktastic amazing world building, and all in a book so slim I could probably have eaten it without needing a glass of water.
Maybe I’d have stopped fussing about the world itself if the relationship between Annwyl and Fearghus had been any less shallow than the setting, but it wasn’t. I mean it’s … nice? But, to be brutally honest, I didn’t really care if they got together or not, which probably wasn’t helped by the fact most of their deeper drives and motivations were incoherent bordering on incomprehensible. For example, Annwyl is unable to defeat her brother without extra training from Fearghus, because … because … actually I have no idea. Reasons? I think it’s a combination of Annwyl being frightened of him and controlled by her rage but, apart from getting quite extensively laid by Fearghus, I didn’t see what had changed for her over the course of the book. I mean, if all that was needed for peace in the war-torn kingdom of Nowherelandia was for one woman to get some counselling, it makes all the bloody warfare seem a bit futile.
Similarly, an absolutely ludicrous situation develops between Annwyl and Fearguus, simply because Ferghus won’t tell her he’s the knight AND the dragon, again, because … uh … Reasons. He babbles some nonsense about the dragon ability to turn human being a closely guarded secret (which he later blows wide open when he turns into a human in full view of Annwyl’s entire goddamn army, and nobody apart from Annwyl seems remotely surprised about it) and his sister claims it’s because he’s afraid Annywyl will reject him if she knows the truth. But this makes absolutely no sense because Annwyl has already made it very clear that she fancies the Knight, but think he’s a dick, and likes the dragon but obviously can’t get it on with him because ick. Fearghus continues to insist she has to accept both parts of him but when he’s being the Knight he is actively a complete tosser which is NOT his personality the rest of the time. So I have literally no idea what he’s trying to accomplish with this Shakespeare Comedy Moment. The only possible motivation I can construct for him is that he knows he’s in a romance novel and wants to hold off shagging the heroine until most dramatically appropriate moment while simultaneously shoring up material for A Big Apology later.
‘Why the hell are you doing that’ aside, I did quite like Fearghus. He’s the least dickish hero I’ve met so far, except when he’s randomly pretending to be more of a dick… which I guess is dickish by definition but moving on. He’s honestly pretty sweet in a slightly generic way. Annwyl, however, was a bit meh. I really liked the concept – she’s this six-foot, scar-covered warrior (at least inasmuch as she can be without deviating from being conventionally attractive). But I was also a bit disappointed that we basically had Lucy Lawless here, in all her fabulousness, and yet it’s specifically established that Fearghus sees her as tiny and fragile in her girly non-dragon mortality. Because women are only ever attractive to men if we perceive them as being weaker than us.
On the page, she’s funny, strong, warm and straight-talking, and a lot of her initial conversations with Fearghus made me laugh:
“You take the heads of men and bathe in their blood.”
“I do not [...] you take a man’s head, there’s blood. Spurting blood. But I do not bathe in anything but water.” (p. 11)
But there’s a lot of her personality that’s just narrated or explicated approvingly by other characters. And the truly interesting things we’re told that Annwyl does – fight wars, lead man into battle, win the loyalty of entire kingdoms – happens almost entirely in the background. Again, maybe my fantasy roots are showing, but I wanted to see her do this stuff so I could admire her for myself, rather than being simply told I should.
I think it was Oscar Wilde (it wasn’t) who said that we may judge someone’s worth by the worth of their enemies. And Annwyl’s enemies are, well, they’re crap. Her brother is the least engaging villain I think I have ever encountered in fiction. He has one personality trait and that is: He Hates All Women. He’s supposed to be a tyrant and we see him doing Lol!Evil things like killing his own henchmen (dude, that’s just poor resource management) and, apparently, he branded all the witches (not, you understand, because immense magical power is dangerous and should be regulated but because He Hates All Women). But there’s no sense of style, scope or scale there. I guess maybe the point was supposed to be that he’s a pissant little weasel – and Annwyl was truly the only person holding herself back – but it doesn’t feel remotely threatening and the confrontation, when it finally comes, doesn’t make for much of a climax. So to speak.
Also Ms Aiken villain-teased me with the guy on at least two occasions. I kept thinking he was going to get character development but he never did. Not long after Annwyl introduces him, the narrative jumps to his POV and I got all excited because it struck me as unusual to get a glimpse into the villain’s head and I thought there was going to be more going on in there than I Hate All Women. There wasn’t. Later, we learn that Evil Brother has allied with a wizard who turns out to be some kind of corrupt, sorcerous dragon who had been using him all along. Again, my little heart sped up, hoping for some kind of interesting twist. There wasn’t.
And I know this was supposed to be Annywl’s story. I’m not trying to say it should have been less about her and more about this random man. But sending her up against the villainous equivalent of a smooshed grape was just insulting to her. She doesn’t even get to take out the corrupt dragon. This is particularly odd because the book goes out of its way to establish a means by which Annwyl can kill dragons. Earlier in the book, Fearghus’s Dad shows up and try to kill her for no particular reason, a confrontation that goes badly for Annwyl until she realises that a dragon’s only weak spot is, um, his cock. Fearghus stops her before she can stab his Dad in the nads but I could see no reason for this scene to happen unless it was setting for a heroic dick chopping in the final battle. Chekov’s Dragon Wang, if you will.
But that never happens. Dicks were comprehensively left unchopped. Ms Aiken basically made me stare at dragon’s penis for no reason at all. Why, why did you make me do that? More importantly, the book missed its one opportunity to have Annwyl’s experiences with Fearghus really mean something. As it is, the evil dragon is whisked into the air and set on fire by Fearghus, presumably so he has something to do in the final battle. But all it does is highlight how hollow the whole business is. I think the evil brother and the evil dragon are meant be parallel antagonists for Annwyl and Fearghus, but since all the power is clearly concentrated in the dragons and Annwyl’s brother is the puppet of a dragon, it makes Annwyl’s actions largely meaningless, except as some kind of hardcore personal therapy.
Dragon Actually wasn’t, by any means, a bad read. I can see all the ways it could be an easy-going romp. It just didn’t particularly do anything for me. I was far too interested in things the text didn’t care about, and I wasn’t sufficiently engaged where the text was focused. I liked Fearghus and Annwyl well enough (ish), but they do an awful lot of bonking, and I kept bogging down. I know this makes me sound an almighty prude but I was at a bit of a loss to see what it contributed. I found it, um, kind of boring and neither Fearghus or Annwyl were sufficiently defined in terms of character for the sex to really say anything about them or to me, apart from that they were having sex and liking it.
There’s also a bit of an odd scene where Fearghus is trying to convince Annwyl to forgive him for not confessing he was the Knight of Dickhead and he ends up tying her to the bed and diddling her senseless until she does. There’s nothing abusive here – they are both clearly up for it and into it. But I don’t understand why you have to construct a ridiculous context in order to consenting tie your partner up. When you could … just … y’know … tie your consenting partner up. Maybe I’m missing some subtlety here? But it’s way less complicated that way round and it seems an awful lot of trouble to go to introduce some minor kink into your relationship.
I’m going to stop hammering this book in a minute. I promise. But I also had a bit of trouble with the writing. There a few lines, thoughts and ideas that are just a bit peculiar. For example, early on Fearghus muses:
He remembered how quickly and strongly his human body reacted to the sight of her. Naked, pale and covered in her own blood. (p. 18)
Um, seriously dude? This is a badly injured woman we’re lusting about here. Personally, when I see that someone has been hurt, I think to myself “gosh, I’d better help that person” not “wahoo, I would really like to put my dick in there!”
And, similarly, I felt the book didn’t have much faith in my ability to pay attention, interpret a situation for myself or remember things I’d already been told, which made me a bit sad. For example, Fearghus is ‘fascinated’ by Annwyl in about six seconds and tells us so about four times in the next ten pages. And, at one point, he’s watching Annwyl frolic about naked and the narration tells us:
But he couldn’t stop staring at her breasts. They were amazing. (p. 66)
I can’t decide whether this was spot-on and kind of endearing or the equivalent to all those dreadful moments in 50 Shades of Grey when Ana stares the trousers hanging off Christian Grey’s hips and tells us: “He was so freaking hot!” I mean, I will confess that when I stare at breasts I tend to think ‘wow, those are good’ rather than ‘wow, those look like cherry-topped gazelles galloping over white hills’. But ‘they were amazing’ somehow feels a bit, uh, flat. It’s one step away from awesome, dude.
By the same token, there’s this:
“Sometimes queens have to do things they’re not always proud of,” she teased. “Including the torturing of handsome dragons, such as yourself …” She smiled as she spoke – and called him ‘handsome’ – but he wouldn’t put anything past her. (p. 28)
Well, uh, yes. I know she called you handsome. I was right there. I read it two seconds ago. Again, I don’t know if this just me being an arse but the text is speckled with moments like these. And, although they’re not a big deal, they added up to yet another factor stopping me having much fun with Dragon Actually.
On the other hand, I actively disliked Chains & Flames. It has all the problems of Dragon Actually but more so. Also the protagonists are Fearghus’s mum and dad, which frankly I found a bit weird. I’d just spent a decent sized book with these guys squarely in the parent zone and I had trouble getting them out again. I’m not trying to say that people who have kids can’t have sex lives but, up until now, I’d only seen these people as parents of the viewpoint character. And nobody should have to think about Dad tying Mum to the bed.
Here’s the plot, such as it is. Rhiannon is a spoiled Pwincess Dwagon (sorry) with magical powers. Her mother hates her (because Reasons) and hands her over to this guy called Bercelak … so he can break her or something, and force her into marriage? And that benefits Rhiannon’s mother how? Again, it’s another one of those ‘seriously, that’s your plan?’ undertakings. Bercelak is some sort of lower class of dragon because his father was a big dragonwhore. Most of the action takes place with everybody in human form but, at this point, I was already driving myself up the wall trying to work out on how on earth this dragon-based society was supposed to function. I mean, dragons are big, really big. You may think it’s a long way down to the shops to chemist but that’s just peanuts to dragons. What do their living arrangements look like? How do they feed so many of them? Why do they have stairs when they can fly? How do a bunch of dragons hold a party? Gah!
Nobody in this book has anything like a personality. Rhiannon is spoiled and annoying and then just annoying. Bercelak has always been in love with Rhiannon because, ahem, Reasons. Rhiannon’s mother is pointlessly and motivelessly malignant. I think one of Bercelak’s sisters might be a lesbian dragon but I am basing this solely on the fact she has short hair, which will tell you just how desperately I was flailing around looking for character traits.
Also the dynamics of sex and gender left me feeling faintly uncomfortable throughout. I don’t know whether it’s deliberate or accidental but dragon society seems to be incredibly sex-negative. Bercelak’s father, who is actually called Ailean the Wicked, is more generally known as Ailean the Slag. I was so confused by this I went and looked the word up in the OED in case there was some alternative American meaning. Ailean the Smelter? But, no, slag is trans-Atlantic, as a term for a worthless, sexually promiscuous person (although over here it’s more generally, and even exclusively, directed at women). I suppose, at least, we can console ourselves with the consideration that dragons practice gender non-specific slut-shaming but it all seems a bit unpleasant to me? I mean, liking sex is not a crime, nor is having sex with multiple partners or having a lot sex. Is this some sort of subtle deconstruction of the hypocrisy inherent in the sexual double standard? Is it just a joke I’ve failed to get? But even if it is, it seems a bit mean to play for the lulz something that is genuinely a destructive and harmful part of our society. I am lost. Help!
Bercelak essentially seduces Rhiannon by faux-forcing (fauxing?) her. He tells her to say ‘no’ and he’ll stop, and she never does, while continuing to protest. Again, as kinky games go, there’s nothing wrong with this – whatever floats your boat is my motto – but, at one point, Rhiannon thinks:
Oh she enjoyed these rules of his. She didn’t have to act like the slag she currently was. Instead she could pretend this was all beyond her control when, in fact, he’d given her complete control. (p. 269)
And I’m still lost. To me, this whole sequence muddles kink and sexual politics in a deeply unhelpful way. I understand that there can be freedom in restraint and submission. And I also know guilt-free sex is a fantasy (which is, in itself, kind of sad because nobody should have to feel guilty for liking or wanting sex). The discussion of F&F lightly touched on these subjects. For that matter, I’ve read The Sheik which is the fluffiest rape fantasy imaginable, and I can see how it came to be written, and why. It’s even kind of adorable, in a rapey, racist way.
But for Rhiannon, this seems to be about cultural perception as much as sexual preference. Despite the fact we already know she’s not a virgin, she’s explicitly condemning herself as ‘a slag’ for enjoying sex with Bercelak and rejoicing primarily in the fact he has given her a moral get-out clause for doing so. I feel bad, really bad, for Rhiannon. Even though I know she’s not real and even though I don’t like her. It must suck to high heaven to be forced to find excuses for your own entirely legitimate desires. But what I really don’t understand is why female characters still need permission to enjoy sex in entirely imagined settings? In a genre explicitly targeted at women. In the 21st century. When I encounter a sexually expressive woman, I think “hell to the yeah” not “oh what a slut.” And I don’t think I’m in a minority on that score. On the other hand, I do live in a liberal, student-heavy bit of Southeast England and that tends to inform my perception of what is reasonable and average behaviour.
And, obviously, it’s not my place to judge how women choose to express their sexualities or what they personally get off on, but I found Chains & Flames personally troubling. It seemed to unquestioningly reflect quite of lot ideas I think are harmful.
But, as I say, that’s just me. Your mileage may vary. And there are dragons.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Dragon Actually: If a woman won’t accept your apology tie her up and spank her. If you see someone has been badly injured, think first of your penis. If in doubt whether a woman really likes you, pretend to be two people. Your parents are probably having kinkier sex than you.
Next up: To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney