Jul 12 2013
Running Out of Dragon Puns – Dragon Bound by Thea Harrison
I’m going to start this review by making a slightly embarrassing confession. Although I liked a lot about Dragon Bound, I found myself irrationally prejudiced against it by a tiny feature of the author’s writing which I’m sure any sensible reader would just look beyond.
Specifically, on about page 8, I was disproportionately bothered by the author’s use of irrealis were.
The line in question is as follows:
“If she were in a race for her life, that roar was the starter pistol. If God were the referee, he had just shouted Go.” (p. 8)
And I know it’s two sentences, and I know that I’m talking about two words out of a whole damned novel, and I know that nothing starts an argument on the internet like a discussion of grammar, but I was eight pages in and it jerked me out of the book early. I’m usually very tolerant of non-standard and flexible uses of language. I don’t care at all whether people use “which” or “that” to introduce a restrictive relative clause. I don’t mind if people say “different than” instead of “different from”, or “a couple X” rather than “a couple of X”. The one kind of language error that really trips me up is hypercorrection – when people care so much about following the perceived rules of formal writing that they apply those rules (or variants of them) at the expense of clear, idiomatic communication.
Most speakers of English in my experience, when speaking or writing informally, use “if … was” for all expressions of uncertainty, be they hypotheticals, counterfactuals, or unknowns. In some very formal contexts, some people consider it more appropriate to use “were” when dealing with explicitly counterfactual situations (“if I were you” being an example that sees relatively common use even in informal speech). It is not, as far as I know, ever used for metaphors or situations of simple uncertainty like “if she were in a race for her life” or (from later in the book) “she wondered if Keith were still alive”. Harrison is pretty consistent about her use of were, I’ve just checked on my ebook there literally isn’t a single “if … was” construction in the entire text which seems to imply that she or her editor believe that you just have to use “were” after “if” regardless of context. This doesn’t mesh with my understanding of standard English, and even when the usage is technically correct it creates a jarringly formal tone that is completely at odds with the rest of the narration or dialogue.
Okay, I promise I will stop nitpicking now and talk about, y’know, the actual book. As ever, this will involve spoilers.
So Pia Giovanni is the orphaned daughter of a mysterious (but beautiful) Wyr – a member of a diverse species of shapeshifters which includes not only your typical animal shifters (like wyrwolves, wyrbears, and – it is strongly implied – wyrmarmosets) but also more mystical beings like griffins, harpies and of course dragons (well, one dragon). She starts the book having been blackmailed by her dickhead ex-boyfriend into stealing from the hoard of the great dragon Dragos Cuelebre, who naturally isn’t best pleased about this. With the help of her boss Quentin she flees to the lands of the Elves (in Charleston, South Carolina). Dragos tracks her down, but she calls for elvish backup, which results in Dragos getting poisoned, then they get grabbed by goblins on the way back to New York, then they escape, then they spend quite a lot of time just sort of hanging out and shagging, then she gets captured again, then she escapes-slash-is-rescued, and that’s sort of it.
In a very indirect way (and I apologise for the tenuous nature of this analogy) the pacing of Dragon Bound reminded me a lot of the pacing of the original Baldur’s Gate. It’s very tightly focused at the beginning, with a clear direction and a strong set of goals, but then you finally get to the big city, and even though you’ve got a clear idea of who the bad guy is and where he’s based, suddenly everything slows down and spreads out and it’s all sidequests and looking for missing boots.
Okay, that analogy got away from me a bit. What I meant to say was that I found about the first forty-five percent of the book to be quite tightly paced with a clear idea of what the stakes were for all parties. Pia’s flight from, and capture by Dragos, their sojourn in Charleston, the attack by goblins, their capture and escape followed by the revelation that the whole situation had been orchestrated by Urien, King of the Dark Fae as part of an elaborate attempt on Dragos’ life was all very exciting and focused. Then just as they find out that Dragos’ mortal enemy has made a concerted effort to destroy him once and for all, and that Pia was to be a tool of his destruction, everything just sort of … stops.
The next forty-five percent of the novel (I read this one on Kindle, so I only really tracked progress in percentages) just lost all sense of progress for me. Dragos brings Pia back to Cuelebre tower and she … sort of hangs out? They have sex a lot, and Dragos talks a fair bit about how there’s totally going to be a war with Urien, but everybody seems significantly more interested in his relationship with Pia. There’s a lot of speculation about exactly what Pia’s wyr-form is going to be (I should really have guessed this one, because it retrospect it’s kind of obvious) and a lot of interaction between Pia and various members of Dragos’ entourage but it all feels a bit aimless after the breathless pursuit of the first half.
It’s only in the final ten percent of the book that we start getting, well, events again. Urien finally takes some action and abducts Pia (although strangely he doesn’t use her as a way to get to Dragos – he actually still thinks the two of them are enemies and only abducted her on spec). This all seemed to be resolved very quickly, with Pia getting rescued almost before I’d got used to the idea that she’d been captured.
I had a mixed time overall with Dragon Bound. I quite liked Pia, and I was surprisingly okay with Dragos despite the fact that he had all the controlling, possessive, asshole traits that usually really put me off a hero. I think, like Wrath in The Black Dagger Brotherhood, Dragos (who also has a pretty animated erection, now I come to think about it) is just so turned up to eleven that it’s hard to be bothered by his behaviour. I’ve only partly been keeping count, but I think Dragos is actually the most over-the-top hero I’ve encountered so far. Not only is he six-foot-eight in his human form (six-foot-eight seems to be a go-to height for a particular type of paranormal alpha-hero) but by my calculations he’s actually something like five billion years old. He’s not only older than the heroine, he’s older than amino acids. He’s nigh indestructible, richer than most countries, wipes out armies single-handedly and can maintain an erection more or less indefinitely. He’s also kind of ahead of the game when it comes to paranormal instalove – I’ve just about got used to heroes who obsess about the heroine as soon as they’ve met her, but Dragos manages to fixate on Pia as a result of smelling her. Once. On a till receipt.
Right from the outset he basically makes Pia the centre of his universe, and while I get why that sort of thing can be romantic, it all just seems a bit extreme. Probably his lowest moment boyfriend-wise is the bit where he has a jealous freakout at his own second in command because he sees said second-in-command sparring with Pia (which he is doing on Dragos’ direct personal orders) and their unarmed combat reminds him vaguely of a sexual position. And on the subject of sexual positions … gosh there’s a lot of shagging in this one. I don’t think it’s so much the frequency of the sexual encounters as their, umm, intensity. It’s not even that they’re particularly explicit, it’s just that they’re remarkably enthusiastic and rather … long? Dragos and Pia first get it together while they’re escaping from an army of goblins, and they spend rather more time exploring the various permutations of boinking open to them than I would have thought entirely prudent when running for one’s life. This pattern of behaviour continues after their first escape from the Dark Fae, with Dragos devoting far more time to spurting his climax into Pia than to – say – actually dealing with Urien in any way.
I think for a large part of the book I struggled to work out where the narrative tension was supposed to be coming from. The book contains a lot of potential sources of conflict, there’s Urien, there’s Pia’s interactions with the members of the Wyr court, there’s the mystery about Pia’s Wyr form, which will apparently cause people to hunt her down if they find out what she is. But none of these things really developed into an arc I could get behind. Urien seems profoundly non-threatening, the Wyr court are hostile to Pia for about eight seconds before deciding that she’s actually awesomesauce (except for Aryal the harpy who irrationally hates her) and after spending most of the book highlighting the importance of nobody finding out what Pia really is … nobody finds out what Pia really is. I mean, Dragos and his lieutenants do, but normally when a book goes to great lengths to explain that it would be really bad if Thing X happened I kind of expect Thing X to happen at some point.
Part of me almost respects the book for this. After all, we’re told in no uncertain terms that Pia and her mother put a huge amount of time and effort into hiding what Pia was, and for that matter making sure that most people don’t even believe that things like Pia exist in the world any more, so it sort of makes sense that they … well … succeeded. In a way it reminds me of that running joke in Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade where people keep looking at the chandelier and saying “wow, I hope that doesn’t fall down, because that would cause really serious problems” and it never actually does. But it still meant that yet another source of potential conflict just kind of slipped by unexploited.
The final unresolved conflict in the book is Urien’s Agent Amongst the Elves. It’s made clear pretty early on that he, well, has one and there’s speculation right until the end about who it might be and what it might mean for it to be one person rather than another. And maybe the spy in the Elven Court is revealed in a later book, but since Urien is fairly emphatically killed in the closing chapters of this one it seems a little bit irrelevant.
I should probably stress at this juncture that a lot of this is just my personal preferences and preconceptions. Particularly when it comes to the fantastical, I still carry over a lot of assumptions from reading in other genres, so I get quite thrown when books focus more on personalities than on events. I do actually see that the interactions between Pia and Dragos, the conflict between his ancient solitary instincts, her deeply ingrained fear of capture or discovery, and their mutual powerful attraction, could be enough to carry the book for a person more interested in the relationship and less interested in the action. It’s just that for me it never quite came together.
Towards the end of the book (before the kidnapping, but after the bulk of the sex) Pia’s Wyr form is revealed. I’d been looking forward to this, because I was interested to see how it would switch up the dynamic between her and Dragos. Most of the other Wyr-creatures are, after all, large and powerful and majestic and the book had routinely emphasised Pia’s relative smallness and fragility compared to the massive, manly Dragos. I sort of expected that this would change once she got her Wyr-form.
Not so much:
She was the size of a small Shetland pony, but she was as far different from a pony as a greyhound was from a Saint Bernard.
By comparison, Dragos’ Lieutenants are the size of SUVs and the man himself is the size of a private jet. But Pia, well, let’s just get a visual on this:
This sort of killed any hope I had of taking Pia’s Wyr-nature seriously as a plot element. There’s just nothing noble or majestic about something so, well, tiny. And I appreciate that she isn’t supposed to have the actual proportions of a Shetland pony, but that makes it even more bizarre. Something with the proportions of a showhorse which never the less only comes to waist height on the average person would just look like it had been badly computer scaled.
I really wasn’t sure what was going on with the pony thing (I think maybe US Shetlands are bigger than UK Shetlands, but only by a few inches). It felt uncomfortably like the author was terrified that giving the heroine a Wyr-form that was was the size you’d expect for the creature she was would make her look unfeminine.
I felt a little bad that I didn’t like Dragon Bound more than I did, because it has a lot to recommend it. The hero and heroine are both pretty cool in their own ways (I liked that Pia was kind of low-key kinky without it being a big deal or evidence of some deep inner trauma). The world is well-realised and original (it’s sort of minor, but I really liked that the goblins came in a range of shapes and sizes), although I’d have liked to see more of the setting beyond Cuelebre tower. The supporting cast is fairly extensive, and seems to be stocked with interesting characters whose stories are presumably explored in more detail in future books (book two seems to be about Tricks the PR Fairy and Tiago the thunderbird). And the sex, while a little … exhaustive … for my tastes is still pretty hot. It’s just that there were enough little bits and pieces that didn’t work for me to keep me from really getting into the story.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Dragon Bound: If you steal from a dragon, don’t leave a receipt. The best time to have sex is when you’re being chased by an army of monsters. It’s dangerous to wrestle with your boss’ girlfriend. Shapeshifting is a natural contraceptive, but not a terribly reliable one.