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REVIEW: Dagger Star by Elizabeth Vaughan

Dear Ms. Vaughan,

Dagger StarI’m a greedy reader. I want it all: solid worldbuilding, strong plotting, and heartstopping romance. But I know that’s a tall order, so if a book can hit two out of three, I’m happy. This is one of the reasons why I like reading across genres because you never know where you’ll find a book that contains all three. Sad to say, however, this is not that book for me.

Jane and I recently talked about how fantasy romances often elicit two different reactions: delight from romance readers in finding a book that’s new and different, and scorn from fantasy readers in finding yet another book full of clichés and tired storylines. And because I identify more as a fantasy reader, I’m afraid Dagger Star falls into the second category.

Let’s start with the heroine. Red Gloves, named for a certain article of clothing she wears, works as a mercenary. She’s lusty, brusque, and skilled with weapons. In other words, she’s like every other female warrior you’ll encounter in a standard sword and sorcery novel. If it had been left at that, I probably would have let it pass. Character archetypes are often employed for a reason and just because a character type is unoriginal, that doesn’t mean it can’t work if the story is strong enough.

But we didn’t leave it at that. Red Gloves also bears a birthmark — the titular dagger star — that proclaims her to be the chosen one. As foretold by a prophecy, the chosen one will reclaim the throne and restore peace to the kingdom. And of course, Red Gloves thinks this is ridiculous, rejects it, and leaves. It’s true that prophecies, war-torn kingdoms in need of new rulers, identifying birthmarks, and reluctant heroes are classic fantasy genre staples but something new needs to be done with them. Otherwise, the story they’re part of becomes indistinguishable from countless stories we’ve read before.

On top of that, what sword and sorcery heroine would be complete without a tragic past? Taken with the mystery of why she wears her gloves, I began to suspect the truth halfway through the book. Now it’s true I have a certain hot button and in theory, Red Gloves’s backstory should have pushed it. It didn’t. Unfortunately, that’s not because it was done well. It didn’t hit my hot button because I found the explanation so ridiculous it snapped my already-strained suspension of disbelief. Maybe I’m just a mean grrl with no heart. Or maybe it’s because we learn the truth behind her gloves so late in the book (chapter 32 of 37). When readers are teased chapter after chapter about the danger of a barehanded Red Gloves, I think the built-up expectation is so high the reality could never live up to it.

Next, we have the hero. When Red Gloves and her partner seek shelter for the night, Josiah seems nothing more than a simple goatherder at first glance. But in reality, he was once a powerful noble and member of the high council that helped rule the kingdom. In addition he was also once a skilled mage but lost his powers when he was injured during battles – specifically by being hit in the head. After all, what other injury could cause a mage to lose his powers?

Why does he live as a goatherder? Guilt. His lands are devastated. His people were massacred. He doesn’t like the ruling regent but doesn’t fight him because his existence needs to remain a secret. Why? I’m not sure. Everyone thought he died in the battle that cost him his powers but there’s no real reason for his survival to remain a secret. I can’t help but feel like this is a plot contrivance.

It’s not just Red Gloves and Josiah that are cookie cutter. The supporting characters could have come out of a D&D handbook. Red Gloves’s partner, Bethral, is steady, dependable, and loyal. Josiah’s cousin is a high priestess who can heal and for some reason, has white hair. His uncle is the most powerful mage in the land. There’s an arrogant half-elf priest and a full-blooded elf lord on the former council, both of whom hate all humans. Where do the elves come from? I have no idea. They’re mysterious, apparently. There’s an abused slave wanted by everyone who later turns out to be a legendary bard. I wish I could say I was surprised by any of them. I wasn’t.

There were some things I could have liked, if they’d been developed more: the fact that Red Gloves wasn’t the only chosen one. I liked this subversion of the usual trope but once Red Gloves accepted her destiny, the other chosen ones were pushed to the background and didn’t return until the end. The scene in which Red Gloves tried on her custom-made armor made me laugh because it poked fun at the silly (and completely impractical) outfits female warriors often wear on fantasy novel covers. I also liked the idea of having the woman ride off to war while the lover stayed behind. That said, switching gender roles isn’t enough for me. I don’t like it when the wife waits at home doing nothing while the husband is off away at war, and I didn’t like it much either when Josiah waited around, doing nothing, while Red Gloves was off saving the country. He didn’t need to be at her side, but some activity on his part would have been nice.

I think readers unfamiliar with the fantasy genre, and sword and sorcery in particular, might find something to like here. Those who’ve read more in the genre, however, might find too much here that’s the same — from the familiar characters to the routine plot to the bland worldbuilding. C

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased in mass market at Amazon or Powells or ebook format.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

14 Comments

  1. Keishon
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:18:02

    I look forward to reading this one.

  2. MaryKate
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:26:14

    I bought it today. Since I really don’t read fantasy much at all, I’m really hoping it works for me. I adored her Warlords of the Plains trilogy.

  3. Jennifer Estep
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:37:17

    I read Warprize a few weeks ago and thought it was excellent. A nice blend of fantasy and romance. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of that trilogy and this one, too.

  4. Jia
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:43:43

    Unless I completely misread a reference in the middle of the book, I believe Dagger Star is set in the same universe as the Warlord trilogy. Different time period though, I think.

  5. Tuesday Review Round-Up « Urban Fantasy Land
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 12:53:43

    […] Dear Author reviews Dagger Star by Elizabeth Vaughn. […]

  6. loonigrrl
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 13:27:23

    I started reading this a couple days ago and was completely overwhelmed by its awfulness. I was really startled by how bad it is because Warprize is one of my favorite books. I was really hoping it would pick up. *Sigh* I just can’t believe I have to make it to chapter 32 to find out the red gloves secret. It’s already driving me crazy.

  7. Jayne
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 14:08:30

    Jia, I read the same reference and agree with you.

    loonigrrl, just wait for my review.

  8. Jia
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 14:15:38

    Jayne, I’m glad you’re reviewing this too. I think it’d be useful for people to read a review from a romance reader’s perspective as well.

  9. Jane
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 14:50:52

    Not to depress you, loonigrrl, but the reveal for the red gloves is craptastic. Be prepared.

  10. Bonnie L.
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 14:55:52

    ARRRRGH!! NO! I was so looking forward to more books by Ms. Vaughn. It’s enough to break my Warprize-loving heart to hear that this new book has fallen so hard on it’s face. Excuse me while I weep a tiny bit. . .

  11. LesleyW
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 16:12:22

    I really liked this. Maybe because so much of what I read is dark urban fantasy which can get to be heavy going after a while. Elizabeth Vaughan is one of my favourite authors, and I loved the Warprize trilogy.

    It is an introductory book to a new series, so I’m hoping that in future books there will be more fleshing out. I think a lot of the things you had problems with could have been solved if the book had been longer and went into more depth. I wish there had been more in there, but I don’t know if the publisher wants to stick to a word count, so stuff has to be cut.

    I did have trouble getting used to the name Red Gloves. But other than that I enjoyed it.

    Josiah I took to be suffering from PTSD. And the reason he had to stay on his land was because he was connected to it. That was the reason he was a null I thought. Any magic he came into contact with was redirected into decontaminating the land.

  12. Jia
    Apr 01, 2008 @ 16:31:24

    S
    P
    O
    I
    L
    E
    R
    S

    (Note to self: Learn the spoiler code that Jayne uses in her reviews.)

    And the reason he had to stay on his land was because he was connected to it. That was the reason he was a null I thought. Any magic he came into contact with was redirected into decontaminating the land.

    I know that’s the explanation the book gives but I didn’t buy it for two major reasons:

    1. The bad guys kidnap him and carry him off from his land.

    2. He was ready to ride off with Red Gloves at the end when she refused to ascend the throne and left.

    Both of which signify to me that the connection is not so strong that he must physically remain on the land.

    As for his nullifying effect, I think my reaction might be a product of reading far too much Save The World fantasy. The kingdom is in chaos. There are civil wars. There’s an unliked ruler. And there’s a rebellion. Josiah’s ability is very dangerous in magical battle, which makes it useful and makes him a weapon. For the rebellion to know about it and not use him in their plans makes no sense. Sure, he’s “family” but in my opinion, that makes it far more likely for him to recruited.

    Even without it, he was friends with several other members of the council. His presence alone was enough to rally a couple to Red Gloves’s banner. That’s useful in and of itself. From a tactical standpoint, I just couldn’t buy this oversight. His value to the rebellion should have occurred to someone.

  13. Anika
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 13:20:00

    Hi,
    I just found this website by accident but I really like it. The whole theme of this page is gorgeous.

    I agree with the review who said that Dagger Star has ‘fallen flat on its face’ because I didn’t enjoy it either. I loved Vaughan’s Warlord trilogy but this book was a shame. I’ve read the second, White Star, in this series and it’s much better than Dagger Star.

    Someone mentioned that the period in dagger star is based in a different time because it is also set in in Plains like th Warlord series – I think you may have gotten mixed up. – I say this because, in Dagger Star, the reference isn’t ‘Plains’ but ‘Palins’ which is another world. There is also the mention of Xylara (Lara) from the first book and they talk of the other world/country across from them. I won’t reveal anymore because there is more revealed in White Star.

    I can’t wait for the next book and how the Vaughan is back to her best!

  14. Jane
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 16:38:09

    @Anika Thank you! It’s interesting to hear that Vaughan is returning to her old stomping grounds. I might have to pick up White Star.

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