Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Drakentovenaar - An Janssens

In 2013 An Janssens' debut appeared. The novel Drakenkoningin (literally translated: Dragon Queen) was the winner of a contest aimed at finding new Dutch language Fantasy talent, organized by one of the largest publishers of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the Netherlands. Drakenkoningin is a novel that doesn't stray much from the proven recipe for Fantasy novels that sell well in the Netherlands. As such it was a bit of a disappointment to me. Especially since the novel itself showed more than a few flaws in the writing and characterization. It must have sold well enough though, Luitingh Fantasy bought two more of her books, making Drakenkoningin into the first novel in a trilogy. October 2014 saw the release of Drakentovenaar (literally: Dragon Wizard) the second volume and I understand that the third one is in the editorial stages already. Despite not being terribly impressed by the first volume curiosity got the better of me when I came across Drakentovenaar during a recent visit to the book store. Time to see if Janssens has improved.

Seven hundred years ago a magical disaster of epic proportions tore the world in half. The north (see the first  volume in the trilogy) is growing ever colder, while the south is suffering increasingly hot temperatures. So much so in fact, that humanity has retreated to a vast system of caves to escape the heat that blisters the surface. The remaining wizards have managed to stay in power but their numbers are so few that they have been forced to intermarry with humans. As a result, each generation their power lessens. Now they have gotten to the point where their strictly patriarchal society has to accept a female heir to the throne, and one with limited magical powers at that. Not everybody is pleased with this prospect. Mutiny is brewing.

I characterized the first novel as hasty. It had a relentless pace and lots of action scenes pretty much from start to finish. It didn't do the novel any favours in terms of worldbuilding and characterization. In Drakentovenaar Janssens slows down just a little bit. Especially in the early stages of the book we get a bit more time to become familiar with this new set of characters and their environment. Towards the end Janssens speeds up again, giving the book a proper climax. The chapters have become a bit shorter too, which fits the pace of the story and the multiple points of view Janssens employs. Technically the novel works a lot better than the first volume.

The story runs parallel to that in Drakenkoningin. Like in the first novel, there is a sense that the world is facing its doom if the situation is not remedied. Where the north is said to be cooling even further, the south is heating up. Life underground is just about bearable but especially the less privileged parts of the population are beginning to feel the squeeze. Throughout the novel links between the north and the south are inserted, and one character from the first novel makes a minor appearance. Janssens is clearly setting things up for a third novel in which we can safely assume righting this ancient wrong will be the goal. It's another bit of skill the previous novel lacked. Of course when she wrote that, it was by no means certain there would be a second or third novel, but the forshadowing still adds a bit extra depth to the novel.

Improvement in some aspects of the writing still doesn't mean I absolutely adore Drakentovenaar though. Problems remain with both thematically and with the characters. The novel's main theme is clearly sexism, it crops up in the storylines of most major characters. The society Janssens has created is strictly patriarchal and has become even more restrictive towards women in the last generation or so. One of the main characters, the thoroughly unpleasant princess Nevsemir, is the embodiment of the treatment women suffer. She is heir-apparent because of a lack of male heirs and her father tries to seize every opportunity to find a male heir. Her mother, known as the Nameless Queen, doesn't seem to care for her at all. Nevsemir is determined to take the throne, feeling she has as much right to it as any man, but is something of a contradiction as she does insist on clothes that cover her completely and is outraged by public displays of affection, immodest clothing or pretty much anything else a woman might do in public that gets her attention. Does she intend to rule the nation demurely hiding behind a veil? There is a contradiction in this character that Janssens doesn't really manage to resolve in the novel.

Sexism is also very much part of the life of Zia, another main character in the story. She grows up with her brother Var who, besides being male is fortunate enough to have a few wizard genes expressing themselves. He therefore receives much more of his father's attention than Zia. This might have been reason for a bit of jealous backstabbing in the family but mysteriously, Zia loves Var as no sister should. Even in a world with a severely reduced population this is incest and Zia knows it. Janssens could have done a number of things with this situation that would have made the character of Zia a lot more plausible. It will not surprise the reader that Zia and Var are not really brother and sister but Zia doesn't even begin to suspect this. If she had, the dynamic in the family could have been a whole lot more interesting. Another thing that struck me as strange is that Janssens doesn't use the fact that incest among wizards is not entirely unheard of in this part of the story. In an effort to keep their powers concentrated instead of diluting them further with each generation, marrying family members in the royal family has been proposed. Maybe Zia isn't aware of this but she doesn't reach for this breach of the taboo for justification. It reduces her to a frustrated teenager whose main purpose in the story is to make life hard for the two characters that really call the shots, and that wasn't necessary. Especially not in a novel with sexism as an important theme.

The third main character  in the novel, Zia's brother Var,  is perhaps the most problematic of all. He is manipulated to such and extend, both by emotional means and magic, that the man can't possibly know anymore who he is and what he is supposed to want out of life. In the end he picks the one goal the story demands of him but why he does so remains completely unclear. His story is so erratic that without magical means to move this character would make no sense whatsoever. As it is, Var is a classical example of a writer pulling the strings on a character too obviously. Var will most likely play a major part in the third novel. Let's hope Janssens gives him some more space to develop on his own terms there.

In the end, Drakentovenaar is a step forward but clearly not all I'm looking for in a Fantasy novel. The whole plot feels a bit contrived with the characters mostly present to serve the plot. Still, if Janssens manages to keep taking steps forward in her writing, the final volume of the trilogy could well be a good read. Janssens' creation doesn't lack possibilities. Despite not being thrilled by this second volume I can't deny being curious about the resolution of the story. I guess I will keep an eye out for the third part of the trilogy.

Book Details
Title: Drakentovenaar
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 287
Year: 2014
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6474-3
First published: 2014

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