Dear Ms. Piper:
This book was billed as “Book 1 of the Dragon Kings” so imagine my confusion when the book featured neither dragons nor kings. I spent the first fifty pages or so wondering when the dragons were going to show up. Is the hero’s magical power turning into a dragon? No. Is it the heroine’s magical power? No. Are they going to be kings? No. Were they kings? No.
The hero is, however, a caged warrior. The mythology in the book took me a while to unpack but here goes. Leto is a slave kept for fighting in underground caverns owned by humans. Despite Leto and his people stronger, quicker to heal, and having some sort of magical powers, they are subservient to human criminal cartels. In the underground, these captives are forced to fight until death. Leto’s family has been part of the underground for generations. The prize of the annual “Grievance” is the right to procreate with any other slave of your choice, willing or unwilling.
Leto believes in the system and takes pride that he is the baddest muthfucka in the underground. He’s so alpha that he knocks around the heroine when they first meet, to establish his dominance and to show her that resistance is unwelcome. This is Leto’s world:
Leto had no key. He was let in and out by the Asters’ human guards. Cattle prods, Tasers, and napalm bullets kept even the most powerful Dragon King in check. The collars made it so.
Leto had never fought back. Why would he? This subterranean complex had always been his place of glory and purpose, where his father had fought. Where, in service to his loved ones, his father had died.
The slaves that fight and win are called Dragon Kings. Audrey MacLaren was kidnapped and forced into slavery. She hoped that she would survive to see her son but to do so she must learn to embrace a power she didn’t realize she possessed. Some world building takes the form of using “Dragon” as an adverb with Audrey says things like “Dragon be” and “Dragon damn” and “Dragon knows”.
The most challenging aspect of this book, other than the fact that Leto was really dislikeable, was that on the one hand we are to believe that the Dragon Kings aka slaves were so powerful that they could only be killed in one way, they harnessed kinetic energy and could release it like a weapon, yet were somehow subservient to humans who had to use all kinds of weaponry to keep the Dragon Kings contained. And it wasn’t this way for one year or two but generationally. Later Leto, still imprisoned, says “He’s not a god,” Leto hissed. “He’s a lonayíp human.
We’re the gods.”
Much of the book is spent trying to teach Audrey how to claim her inner spirit and control her. This requires Leto to treat with her regular brutality which made a sort of sick sense. All he was trained to do was fight, hurt, win for the purpose of procreation. Leto’s character was confusing to me. Maybe I am too linear of a thinker to understand him. He did not seek freedom. He did not even feel himself oppressed yet he understood victimhood and expressed distaste toward Audrey for allowing herself to be mistreated.
The world building faltered a bit because procreation was really prized for the Dragon Kings, these underworld slaves, and reportedly it was very hard for them to have offspring. Audrey, however, has a natural born dragon warrior from a non Dragon King male. (This was one part of the story I did like – that Audrey had a previous marriage that was happy and satisfying). Audrey was an outcast instead of being prized. The inter family politics of the Dragon Kings was only lightly alluded to and not in a way that provided good explanation for Audrey’s position or even Leto’s position. I guess I’d find out in later Dragon King books but even though I love a good barbarian romance, this just didn’t do it for me.
Yes, the characters grew and yes, Leto came to the realization that Audrey’s weaknesses were really strengths but it takes a lot of really awful behavior to get to that point and I’m not really sure that I’m prepared to undergo that again for a book with a so so romance and confusing worldbuilding. C-