REVIEW: Dagger Star by Elizabeth Vaughan
Dear Ms. Vaughan,
I’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