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REVIEW: Dragon Actually by G.A. Aiken

Dear Ms. Aiken,

book review When I heard you were expanding beyond the pack books written as Shelly Laurenston to this Dragon Kin series, I was really looking forward to these new books.   Not only do I have a soft spot for dragons, but I still love the tough, independent heroines for which you are known.   And in that sense, Dragon Actually (comprised of two related stories) does not disappoint:   Annwyl and Rhiannon, the two heroines, are at the top of the female alpha scale.   But in terms of the overall world-building, character, and relationship development, the book read to me like more of a draft than as finished, polished work.

In Dragon Actually, Annwyl the Bloody (aka Annwyl of Garbhán Isle, Annwyl of the Dark Plains) prepares to faces off against her eeevil brother, Lorcan, the Butcher of Garbhán Isle.   The story opens in the midst of a battle scene in which Annwyl is struck through with a sword, convincing her that she will die before she has a chance to take her brother’s head.   Her impressive bravery right to the end is impressive, however, especially to the enormous black dragon who inhabits the land on which she is fighting.   Fearghus the Destroyer does not particularly like humans – except to snack on, of course – but as he unleashes fire upon her brother’s soldiers and tenderly brings her wounded body back to his cave, he is captivated by the little human.   So enlisting his sister, Morfyd, a witch, to heal Annwyl, he becomes determined to keep her safe and help ensure that she can finish her deadly business with Lorcan, whose bloody reign and taste for torture are ruining the kingdom.

Unbeknownst to Annwyl, Fearghus and his kin can transform into humans, so while Annwyl knows the two as dragon and human, and not as dragon siblings, they hold the ancient power of both species.   And so as Annwyl grows stronger within the safety of Fearghus’s cave, Fearghus convinces her to train with a “friend” of his (himself in human form), which creates a sort of love triangle with only two real participants.   Annwyl shares and stronger and stronger emotional bond with Fearghus the dragon, and an incendiary physical passion with his human counterpart, all the while never suspecting they are one and the same.   Fearghus, in the meantime, grows more and more afraid of telling Annwyl the truth, even as her time in his presence grows shorter and, most unluckily, several of his siblings and his father show up to complicate things considerably.

The main romantic tension in this story is centered on the divided loyalty Annwyl feels for Fearghus’s two forms.   She grows more and more in love with the dragon and more turned on by the human, while Fearghus knows without ambiguity that he is completely in love with Annwyl and increasingly afraid she will feel betrayed by and ultimately reject both parts of him.   The story is not particularly complex, nor are the main characters.   Initially, defeating the brother seems urgent, although the urgency fades during the part of the story in which the romantic bonds grow, re-emerging near the end as the action picks up toward the climax and resolution of the Annwyl v. Lorcan conflict.

For me, the primary appeal of Dragon Actually was the kick-ass sassy heroine and the Shelly Laurenston trademark sarcasm:

“Fearghus?”   She closed the book in her hand and turned, her chain rattling more.   But it wasn’t Fearghus standing in front of her, but a tiny human.   How cute.   Bercelak sent her a little something to munch on.

“And who are you?”   She always liked to chat with her meals before disemboweling.   You never knew what you might learn.

The human female did not answer.   She just stared at her.   A typical response when humans saw her.   She stood much larger than most dragons.

She snapped two talons together.   “Hello?”

It came alive, clearing its throat.   “Um . . . I am Annwyl.”

“Annwyl.   Annwyl.   I do not know an Annwyl.   So are you my dinner?”

“No.”   It took a step back.   “No.   I’m not dinner.   Let’s never say that again. . . .”

Funny.   Bitchy.   Sarcastic.   All good.   I like that we get the scene from Rhiannon’s point of view, because it adds to the disorientation they both feel.   Beyond that, though, I really have little to say about this story.   It took me an incredibly long time to get through it, actually, as I picked up the book and put it down more times than I can count.   There were moments where I felt that it was bad enough to be good, and times I felt it was just meh.   Things bothered me.   The dragon’s wings, for example, are made of leather.   Just how did the beast tan his own wings, and are they original dragon hide?   The huge battle scene at the end of the book in which Annwyl faces off against Lorcan is amazingly anti-climatic thanks to some dragon antics that could have been unleashed an eon ago, bypassing Lorcan’s evil hold on Garbhán Isle.   The relationship conflict connected to Fearghus’s dual nature has a strange trajectory, with a resolution followed by a separation that I could find absolutely no reason for beyond maintaining the drama and extending the story in order to set up the next tale, which featured Fearghus’s parents, Bercelak and Rhiannon.

Chains and Flames was not the story I was expecting after Annwyl and Fearghus’s (I was thinking Morfyd and one of Annwyl’s military leaders, Brastias), but it did provide a nice context for the strange image we have of Rhiannon in Dragon Actually (she was chained to the wall of her cave) and a convenient way to introduce more of Fearghus’s siblings, for, I’m assuming future books.

Rhiannon is a white dragon, which means that she should be very strong in the Magick (dragons are color coordinated, so blue dragons have blue hair in human form and the like); however, she is much weaker than she should be.   Her mother, Addiena, is now Queen of the Dragons, having prevailed in the Dragon War, in large part thanks to the fierceness and intelligence of her Battle Lord, Bercelak The Great (aka Bercelak the Vengeful).   And now Addiena has decided that her daughter Rhiannon should be Claimed by Bercelak.

Unlike the typical virginal miss of much Romance, Rhiannon is not at all deluded about her mother’s motives.   Rhiannon knows that her mother is trying to both test Bercelak’s loyalty and bring her daughter further under her own thumb (uh, claw), especially since Addiena is only a red dragon, and not, theoretically, as powerful as her white dragon daughter (and am I the only one who was wanted a bit more irony with the white magickal powers?).   So Rhiannon makes her own plans, which Rhiannon interrupts by stripping her daughter of all her dragon magick, dropping her, literally, half dead right in front of Bercelak’s cave.

Unbeknownst to Rhiannon and Addiena, Bercelak has always had a thing for Rhiannon; not only is she the sexy, homicidal older woman, but her haughty beauty entrances the somber Bercelak from his first glance.   Given a choice, Bercelak would choose Rhiannon over her mother, although that is not much of a comfort to Rhiannon, who does not trust anyone or anything linked to her ruthless mother, at least not until Bercelak and his family prove their loyalty to her by taking on her case against Adienna.

Like Dragon Actually, Chains and Flames contrasts a destructive family relationship with a nurturing romantic attachment.   This is a consistent theme in Laurenston’s work, although I think it is handled with more finesse in some of her Pack books.   Although I must say that I enjoyed the family dynamics more in this story than in the first, in part because Bercelak’s father is quite unconventional (he prefers to live as a relatively powerless human most of the time), and the sexual connection between Bercelak and Rhiannon is unabashedly kinky (in a pretty vanilla sort of way, but still). They indulge in testing the limits of their power, as dragons, as humans, and as a couple.

Beyond that, though, there just wasn’t much dimension to either Chains and Flames or Dragon Actually, even though I was more actively entertained (read:   I got through it in one sitting) by the second story.   Despite the difference in color, I had a hard time telling the siblings apart, making me wary of pursuing this series very far (although I am very interested in Morfyd’s story, should there ever be one).   And as much as I enjoy these women who are definitely the equals of their strong alpha males, I’m starting to get the sense of “same old” when I read Laurenston’s work, and not in a way that engenders comfort so much as tedium.

I understand from the Samhain bookstore that this book was previously published by Triskellion, but since it is now being published by Kensington and Samhain, I am assuming that it has been edited for republication.   Regardless, I read it as a new book, although I don’t know if that made a difference in how I responded to it.   On the one hand, I have no problem with ebooks reissued by print houses, since there is much excellent work in epublishing (my favorite Laurenston books are those Pack Challenge books published by Samhain).   On the other hand, these stories simply felt anemic to me, and finding out they were reissues made me wonder how they differ from the originals.   Whatever the changes, they were not enough for me to find these two stories as compelling as I wanted them to be.   Dragon Actually finished as a C- and Chains and Flames a C, not horrible, but not outstanding in any way, either.

~Janet

This book can be purchased in mass market from an independent bookstore or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

12 Comments

  1. Janine
    May 11, 2009 @ 12:13:11

    Dragon Actually finished as a C- and Chains and Flames a C, not horrible, but not outstanding in any way, either.

    The review is filed under C+ reviews. Was that an error, then?

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  2. Ann Bruce
    May 11, 2009 @ 12:19:40

    This book was my first introduction to Laurenston/Aiken because I, too, have a soft spot for dragons and Mrs. G really enjoyed it. The sarcasm and humor were great, but I found the heroine a little too much for me. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wanted Annwyl to be a touch more feminine. However, I greatly enjoyed the dialogue in the book and found myself skipping all the sex scenes to get to them faster.

    Plot-wise, I found myself wanting more because I equate dragons with the word epic, but I think that’s a reader issue, not an author issue.

    BTW, Robin, I read the paperback edition and was distracted constantly by the grammatical errors. Did you have the same problem with the electronic edition?

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  3. ReacherFan
    May 11, 2009 @ 13:11:44

    I read the ebook several months ago and thought it wasn’t as good as her second in the series, About a Dragon, which I preferred. I’m a si-fi fan, so I think certain elements bothered me less. I’d give it a C to C+ and About a Dragon B-. I just loved Briec. He’s just so blindly arrogant and Talaith just skewers him right and left.

    I just bought both in print plus the reprints of her Mangus pack. My hands down favorite of hers remains Here Kitty, Kitty, which I just reread – again. :-)

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  4. joanne
    May 11, 2009 @ 13:14:37

    I like Aiken’s dragon books for the same reasons you give; the heroines are laugh out loud funny and never, ever stupid (at least, not for long). The C grade seems fair.

    It may be that I like these because I’ve never read another dragon story that I could finish (Do Not Throw Rocks, Please) and I read them solely for the humorous dialogue rather then developing plot.

    I do think that they probably weren’t re-edited because I read them a long time ago as ebooks and the problems mentioned seem exactly the same in the new mm paperbacks.

    Her stories under the Shelly Laurenston pen-name are my all time favorites for plot and marvelous characters and they are books that I turn to when I’m desperate for a laugh.

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  5. BevBB
    May 11, 2009 @ 13:15:30

    I had a slight advantage in that I read this one after reading the “sequel” – About A Dragon when it was first published as The Distressing Damsel under Shelley Laurensten. It’s about Briec, the next oldest brother of Fearghus, and the prize he drags home after rescuing her from being burned at the stake as a witch.

    She is not grateful, hence the distressing part. ;p

    Personally, I think it’s a better and much more well-rounded story than the one about Annwyl and Fearghus. And the story of their parents, while interesting, always did seem like just background information to me.

    The problem with Annwyl and Fearghus is that they are played up as being totally larger than life in About A Dragon. In fact, the first time I read Dragon Actually, I wasn’t even completely sure I was reading about the same characters what with the author AKA change and all. There was so much similarity in the setting and characters, the sense of deja vu was so strong, I checked and sure enough they were. What threw me, though, was that Annwyl is so different at the beginning of Dragon Actually than she is in About A Dragon, I almost didn’t recognize her.

    I’m still trying to figure out how exactly to explain it because I’m not sure it can all be chalked up to good old-fashioned character “growth”.

    And, no, as far as I can tell, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the first version of that story and the new one. I haven’t read the original of Dragon Actually, though, so I have no idea how much change there is there.

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  6. ReacherFan
    May 11, 2009 @ 13:19:29

    :-) I read About a Dragon first as well.

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  7. Liz_Peaches
    May 11, 2009 @ 14:33:50

    I came to DA right from icanhascheezburger, so my first thought at seeing the title was: “Dragon- Ur Doin it Pretty Gud Akshuly.”

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  8. Janet
    May 11, 2009 @ 23:00:39

    @Janine: Yes, I just fixed it; thanks.

    @Ann Bruce: You know, I don’t mean this as harshly as it’s probably going to sound, but I almost always have issues with the technical aspects of Laurenston’s books, but I can look past them when the story or characters is strong.

    As for Annwyl, my problem wasn’t so much her lack of femininity as it was the way the tension around her developing relationship with the dragon could not be sustained. Although perhaps more nuance in her character would have facilitated that, and maybe that’s what you mean?

    @ReacherFan: I also love Here, Kitty Kitty. Just typing out the title makes me smile. ;)

    @joanne: I also love her heroines but admit I’m getting a little burned out by the same type. Not that I don’t enjoy their toughness, but I feel like the first books of hers I read were my favorites.

    @BevBB: ooh, I have the Distressing Damsel, although I have not yet read it. Perhaps I will do a little comparison. Thanks, Bev!

    @Liz_Peaches: LOL!

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  9. Ann Bruce
    May 11, 2009 @ 23:25:56

    @Janet: Normally, I won’t notice errors or will ignore them if it happens once or twice, but it got to the point where I started doubting my own grasp of the English language and grammar. Admittedly, English is my third language and I probably don’t know it as well as most native speakers, but I think I have a pretty decent understanding of its technical aspects.

    As for Annwyl, I still can’t express fully why she didn’t work for me 100% as the heroine. After a while, it got very tiring to read about her because of all the yelling and stomping about.

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  10. BevBB
    May 12, 2009 @ 07:37:02

    @Janet:

    ooh, I have the Distressing Damsel, although I have not yet read it. Perhaps I will do a little comparison. Thanks, Bev!

    It’ll be interesting to see what your reactions to it are. Mine were truly weird when reading Dragon Actually after reading the other one first. I think. For one thing, I had no idea Laurenston was the author, so I went into it completely blind but kept thinking “I know these people. Don’t I know these people?”

    Especially the dragons. Half-dragons. Whatever. I mean their family is so whacky that they’re trademark Laurenston and in that way sort of unmistakeable. The one that was giving me problems, though, and throwing me was the heroine, Annwyl. So I went back and dug around for some info and sure enough, found that it was Laurenston and the rewrite of the first book in her dragon series. Which I had known was in a holding pattern and was hoping was eventually going to come out again.

    Of course, then I was sitting there reassured in my own mental state but wondering what in the world had happened to this woman. ;) Because in the second book, she’s this strange combination of woman-child and Xena warrior princess. Or worse. That’s not at all what we see in the first. Is it?

    But again, was that mixed up impression colored by my having read the second one first because like I said they’re both so much larger than life in the second book? I can’t get a handle on it. I’ve reread them both a couple of times now and still haven’t decided.

    I’ve actually wondered if she wrote the second one first, though.

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  11. Edie
    Jun 15, 2009 @ 17:55:18

    Annwyl is one of my all time fav heroines. Shelly Laurenston is a total auto buy, and has been since I found her on trisk.. Mainly for her Hs, there is just something about a borderline psychotic or just plain crazy H which appeals to me, especially after spending my life being angry about the lack of strength in the majority of romance heroines. (JIMO)

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  12. Hope Jackson
    Nov 20, 2009 @ 23:00:15

    @Janet:my daughter read all three of the of the dragon series and keep laughing; so I had to read them, I read at work and laught so much my friends are linging up to read them.

    I love the way that all kin stay in all the books and not forgotten in the books after they found thier mates.

    As far as Annwly goes I think she hasn’t really changed to much, and she may not have the femininity that many seem to think she should have but, if she did she wouldn’t work well in the book. The heroines have to be over the top to be a mate to a dragon. If she worried about breaking her nails how would she be able to handle a dragon.

    I love all the ways the family is so differnet, the fighting with each other, the playing, love and careing for one another the way really familys are. The story line is wonderful and I can not wait for the next book I am hoping there is a book for all the siblings and some of the “low born” Kin. I would even like to see the aunt in the north more. And for the record I hope the writing style doesn’t chang. I even love the way the “low born” talk.

    While I am here does anyone know “does a dragons dick have scales?” lol

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