Friday, March 28, 2014

Drakenkoningin - An Janssens

When you look around on in a the genre fiction section of your average Dutch bookshop, you'll notice that not much in the way of fantasy and science fiction on the shelves is local produce. Science fiction is nearly impossible to find in Dutch and fantasy is almost always translated, with the English language world being the biggest supplier. One of the reasons I started reading in English is that the selection offered is very limited in some ways. I do try to keep an eye out for fantasy originally written in Dutch however. It doesn't happen often that I find something worth reading but once in a while I come across a title that makes me curious. Drakenkoningin (literally translated: Dragon Queen), is one such book.

There are two publishers in the Netherlands that publish the bulk of fantasy available in Dutch and one of them, Luitingh Fantasy, must have noticed the shortage of homegrown talent. In 2012 the set up a contest, challenging writers to submit their manuscripts. The winner would, if the manuscript was of sufficient quality, be published. From the conditions of the contest it is clear that Luitingh wasn't going to take too much chances besides publishing a new name. The novel they were looking for should be firmly rooted in fantasy and should appeal to a wide audience. If you read between the lines of the conditions, they were essentially looking for a novel much like the translated works they are publishing and in a way, that is exactly what they got.

Drakenkoningin by Flemish author An Janssens is the winning book of the contest. It was published in October 2013 by Luitingh Fantasy after a round of edits of the original manuscript. It's a fairly short novel that nevertheless seems to check all the boxes of bestselling Fantasy in the Netherlands. It's a not too challenging read, is set in a secondary world in which a magical disaster too place in a distant past and it has dragons. In short, it is the kind of Tolkienesque fantasy that has been doing well here in recent years.

Seven hundred years ago, a magical experiment has gone awry. The wizards responsible for the disaster retreated behind a magical barrier, leaving humanity behind to fend for itself in a cooling world. Their influence isn't entirely gone however. The wizard Venor set up a contest to be held once every century. The winner and his or her descendants would rule of humanity until the next contest was held.The contest is rigged however. For seven centuries, one queen has ruled practically unopposed and with an iron fist. Soon a new contest will be held, and this time the queen has serious competition.

If I'd had to capture this novel in one word I'd probably say it is hasty. The concept behind the story offers lots of possibilities but almost all of them are sacrificed to keeping the plot going at the fastest pace possible. The novel's prologue illustrates this perfectly. We catch a glimpse of a world in turmoil, the last moments of a civilization. It's a chaotic scene and tosses the reader a few riddles to explore further on in the novels. Or at least, that is what one would expect of a prologue. An awful lot of the things mentioned in the prologue are not followed up on. There is the suggestion that wizards are actually a different species instead of humans with magical powers, there is the riddle of what they were doing that so hopelessly screwed up the world and why they thought it was a good idea to try, there is motivation of Venor to create the barrier that remains completely unclear. The contest itself is one of the few things that Janssens does follow up on. The prologue a nice action-packed sequence but if not for the contest and appearance of one of the main characters in the novel, there would have been a total disconnect with the rest of the story.

Fast-forward seven hundred years and we end up in the main body of the story. To further introduce the reader to her creation Janssens uses a main character Thala, who wakes up a captive in the single city humanity is confined to. Most of her memories are gone and she is severely weakened. This memory loss offers Janssesn another opportunity to slip in some tidbits about the world the reader needs to know. She uses it very sparingly however, Thala is soon caught up in a whirlwind of events that sees her take part in the next contest. For most of the story, Thala's actions are driven by an acute need to survive. She is weakened from injuries, dependent on others to keep her safe and on the move and rarely able to make her own decisions. We see what she does, share her most basic responses and feelings but never truly get into her head and that is a huge missed opportunity when you consider the magic that surrounds her.

The wizards may have withdrawn, that doesn't mean magic is gone from the world. The Queen for instance, employs a kind of magic that lets her influence the thoughts of others. Sometimes it is quite crude but she is also capable of very subtle manipulations. Her victims are not always aware that she is manipulating them. The talent is not widespread but a number of other characters are also able to do it. This makes the queen very suspicious, in fact, she is bordering on paranoid for most of the novel. Oddly enough, the knowledge that whatever you are thinking at a specific time might not be your own though, doesn't seem to affect the other characters as much. Thala realizes quickly that the queen and a number of other characters can get into her head. There is a great possibility for a psychological game here but it never really materializes. The more mundane, physical challenge of the contest takes precedence.

Thala has essentially lost her entire identity when she wakes up. She needs to find herself, her past and her place in the world and is surrounded by people she can't trust, tried to hurt or imprison her or plant thoughts into her head designed to keep her form winning the throne. Doubt, paranoia and confusion could have been used to much greater effect. If this novel had explored the psychological aspect of the situation a bit further I think it would have been a much more interesting read.

Thala's nemesis the Queen falls victim to minimal characterization as well. She is essentially cut off from the truly advanced magic of the wizards, ostracised from a society that may have looked down on her but offered possibilities to expand her knowledge and power. What we find seven centuries on is a woman obsessed by staying in power but apparently blind to the fact that the pitiful remnant of human society she is ruling over is effectively dying. Nowhere in the novel is there any trace that she means to reach beyond what she already rules to try and stop this decline. Or perhaps beat the contest once and for all and take revenge, that would have been another good motivation for this character. As it is her ambition is to stay in power, period. Had she had more ambition, the reader would have had to ask the question whether the Queen's goals justify her means, injecting a bit more grey into a character that, right now, is just plain evil.

Drakenkoningin is a novel for really plot oriented readers. Janssens made is a very fast paced tale, where the reader (or the characters for that matter) barely get time to catch their breath. To achieve all this speed and action, worldbuilding and characterization are, sometimes quite brutally, sacrificed. That is a choice some readers may appreciated. Personally, I look for a little more in a fantasy novel. Janssens has the basics for an interesting story here but I feel she is not making the most of it. There is too much shaky worldbuilding and too little attention to the motivations of her characters for me to really appreciated it. In the end I felt that this book needed a bit more Philip K. Dick and a little less Raymond E. Feist to make it rise above the fantasy that crowds the shelves in Dutch book stores. That being said, I understand that it is to be the first book of a trilogy. Some of what I am missing in this story may be addressed in later volumes.

Book Details
Title: Drakenkoningin
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 271
Year: 2013
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6254-1
First published: 2013

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