REVIEW: The Treasure Keeper by Shana Abe
Dear Ms. Abe,
I’ve been a fan of your drakon series since the first book, The Smoke Thief. I was one of those readers who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the paranormal romance revolution, but the drakon series are among the books that make me glad I finally (more ore less) succumbed. These stories combine romance with fantasy elements (a village in the heart of 18th century England whose residents can turn from human to smoke and from smoke to dragon) that I have never found to be too heavy-handed or overly detailed (I find the excessive world-building of some fantasy tiresome and confusing). I’ve also found your prose well above-average: lyrical without being purple or overblown.
The Treasure Keeper opens with the first entry into the journal of Zoe Lane, on her thirteenth birthday. Well, technically it opens with a prologue narrated by the mysterious dragon whose opaque commentary runs through these books, but the first chapter is Zoe’s journal entries from ages 13 through 29, with a postscript addressed to her twin Cerise, explaining why she is slipping away from Darkfrith – the drakon village – an action that will mark her as a “runner” and bring her to the attention of the Council that rules Darkfrith. The dragons of Darkfrith have maintained the secret of their unusual abilities by ruling their people with an iron hand (talon?). Those that flee are hunted down, returned and often executed to protect the entire clan.
Zoe, the village seamstress, is like most of the women of the clan – she does not have the ability to Turn. This ability apparently diminished and died out almost entirely in the centuries before the series begins – only male villagers can Turn to smoke and to dragon, with the exception of some of the female members of the Langford family, the ruling family of their tribe (the head of the drakon is called the Alpha – he is the hero of the first book in the series).
But Zoe does have other Gifts, as she discovers and recounts in her diary entries. She develops the ability to become invisible and to read the thoughts of those around her. Eventually she discovers that the dead call out to her, trapped in mirrors or behind glass, entreating her to help or avenge them.
Zoe does not reveal her Gifts to the village elders. This is one of the interesting aspects of the series, and one I recall discussing with Janine after reading The Smoke Thief. The Council and the Alpha can be ruthless in their efforts to protect Darkfrith. In addition to mercilessly tracking and killing runners, they will use whatever means at their disposal to ensure the safety and prosperity of the group as a whole. The wants of individuals, like Zoe in this book or Rue, the heroine of The Smoke Thief, are of little concern. I struggled with this when reading The Smoke Thief; I was sympathetic to Rue’s wishes for autonomy. Janine made a pretty good argument that the drakon of Darkfrith needed secrecy to survive, and secrecy required keeping a tight leash on the entire clan. The wants of individual members of the tribe had to come second to the best interests of the tribe as a whole in order for them to survive. I still didn’t like it, but I could understand it a bit better from that point of view.
Anyway, I’m digressing; Zoe, like Rue before, doesn’t wish to be a pawn of the Council, so she keeps her strange abilities to herself. Her journal details her early puppy love with Lord Rhys Langford, one of the sons of the Alpha. Ultimately, Zoe backs away from Rhys and the only appearances he makes in her journal in subsequent years are as an arrogant young lord she occasionally sees in the village. She begins a long and rather tepid engagement to Hayden James, another villager. It’s Hayden who motivates Zoe’s flight from Darkfrith. Over the past several books the dragons of Darkfrith have made a couple of startling discoveries: one, that they are not in fact the last of their kind, as they had previously thought, and two, that they are threatened by an ancient enemy – the sanf inimicus, a cult of human dragon-hunters.
Hayden has gone on a mission for the Council, and like other dragons sent before him (including Rhys), he has not returned and his whereabouts are not known. Zoe, who sees Hayden as her connection to a tribe that she has always felt slightly out of step with, is determined to use her Gifts to find him.
To that end, she travels to Paris, where she stays in the abandoned Tuleries Palace and finds herself haunted by a ghost that she fears is Hayden’s. I’m going to spoiler-bar the following out of intense spoiler-paranoia, even though this information is on the book’s description page on your website:
Zoe and Rhys simply weren’t together enough in this book for me. I wouldn’t say I’m a reader who unequivocally dislikes separations between the hero and heroine, nor do I mind if a romance-fantasy hybrid is a bit stronger on the fantasy than on the romance. But something about the plot of The Treasure Keeper felt very unbalanced to me. There is the long opening chapter that skims over sixteen years of Zoe’s life. Then Zoe is in Paris, looking for Hayden and being haunted by ghosts. I honestly wasn’t sure for quite a while whether Rhys was the hero of the book – not because Hayden was so compelling (he really wasn’t), but simply because Rhys was not very present either in Zoe’s thoughts or as an actual character.
The action (and interaction between Zoe and Rhys) is packed into the last quarter of the book, for the most part, which contributed to the unbalanced feeling. Additionally, a villain emerges pretty much from nowhere in the last couple of chapters. While I appreciate that this is a continuing series, the revelation of the villain felt rather random, and as a result, I felt like I was supposed to care, but didn’t. Since this character will obviously be playing a part in future books, I think the unveiling would’ve done better to occur earlier in The Treasure Keeper, or be saved for the next book entirely. I don’t know, I just didn’t like the cliffhangery feel of this plot turn.
I liked Zoe and Rhys well enough. They could have been given more unique characterizations – Rhys is basically the carefree young aristocrat who has been rather abruptly and shockingly battered by life, whereas Zoe is the village girl who has never quite fit in and doesn’t realize that she’s stunningly beautiful. These are both cliches to be sure, but they are cliches I kind of like, and you leaven these characterizations with descriptions of those traits that all drakon share – they are beautiful and charismatic but also fierce and terrible. It is a bit thrilling to hear Zoe described as a “monster” by a thief she encounters in Chapter Two – I’m intrigued by the notion of beautiful monsters, which is what the drakon truly are.
Your prose is lovely as always, and well suited to fantasy, I think (I think of lyrical prose as being particularly appropriate for fantasy romance – maybe it’s the fairytale connection). Here’s a passage near the end, as Zoe and Rhys lie on the rooftop at Tuileries:
He seemed to run out of words. She watched him struggle in silence, a shadow-darkened man with enamel blue all around him, endless but for the birds that flew, and the clouds that swept in pale crystalline tiers, blown about the horizon.
I’m not usually a reader who complains about plot much, finding that strong prose and decent characterization usually hold my interest through any type of plot. But it took me over a week to finish The Treasure Keeper – not that long for me, as I’m a slowish reader, but it felt like longer. I can’t help but wish that the bones of the plot had been rearranged, because knowing that I liked the characters and the settings and the prose, I have little reason for not liking this book more than I did. All in all, it was still a B for me, and I do look forward to the next book in the series.