REVIEW: Dragon Actually by G.A. Aiken
Dear Ms. Aiken,
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 GarbhÃ¡n Isle, Annwyl of the Dark Plains) prepares to faces off against her eeevil brother, Lorcan, the Butcher of GarbhÃ¡n 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 GarbhÃ¡n 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.