Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dragon Heart - Cecelia Holland

I own a copy of Floating Worlds,  Cecelia Holland's only science fiction novel. It has been on my to read list for ages but  I can't seem to get around to reading it. She wrote that novel fairly early on in her career. Most of the rest is historical fiction but once in a while a fantasy novel appears, usually in a historical context. Dragon Heart is an uncut fantasy novel. When Tor offered me a review copy, the book intrigued me. The cover and synopsis promise a traditional epic fantasy but given Holland's oeuvre I had the feeling it would not be quite what the cover suggested. That turned out be correct. Dragon Heart is probably not quite what the reader would expect but it is a very good novel.

Jeon is sent to collect his mute sister Tirza from the monastery where her mother, Queen of Ocean Castle has hidden her away. On the way back, their ship is attacked by a dragon. Jeon survives the sinking of the ship and returns home. Tirza is captured by the dragon. A bond between the two is established that can't be broken by Tirza's eventual escape. When she returns home, many months later, she finds the situation there desperate. Her mother is forced to marry a brother of the emperor whose army killed her father. She has held of, grieving for her supposedly killed daughter, but with Tirza's return, there is no more putting off the inevitable. A power struggle between the old ruling family and the empire is about to begin.

There are two very clear elements in this novel that show it is written by an experienced author. The first is the pacing, which is absolutely amazing. The author takes the time to develop Tirza. Since she can't speak to any of the characters but the dragon, the first section of the novel is where we get to know her. Holland also slips in some history of her family disguised as legends. Once we get back to Castle Ocean and more points of view get mixed in, a game of pretence develops between the empire's representatives and the locals. Like the waves crashing on the beach below Castle Ocean, a series of increasingly violent confrontations wash over the reader, raising the tension until the final, lethal climax of the book becomes inevitable.

The second element of the novel that I really liked was the way it relies on what the author doesn't tell us as much as on what is described. Castle Ocean is a mysterious place. There is a bit of haunted house horror in this novel as well as epic fantasy. The reader gets clues along the way but almost never a straight explanation. For the locals, the events in Castle Ocean are business as usual, nothing to remark upon. For the empire they are a mystery, one they don't care to think about as the habits of the local primitives are beneath them. Holland skilfully uses this to slowly reveal to the reader what we need to know to fully understand the plot.

Just as Holland limits what she tells us about Castle Ocean and the area around it, information about the empire is scarce. We know it is huge and still expanding, technologically more advanced than Castle Ocean and that it radiates the arrogance of power. Where many authors would choose to add more worldbuilding and develop this part of the story beyond the bare minimum Holland keeps her novel concise. It is focussed on the events in Castle Ocean, a very isolated part of the world, and word of events taking place in the world outside their borders penetrates slowly. It is another example of how Holland uses what you don't get to see to shape the story.

Tirza's family has a connection with the castle, the ocean and the lands along the coast the empire fails to understand. They live with the rhythm of the tides, return to the ocean in times of distress and are intimately familiar with the land, seasons and weather. The novel contains a lot of imagery based on storms, waves, foam and tides. The locals exploit this knowledge in their conflict with the empire in a number of very clever ways. In a way Dragon Heart is a tale based on a conqueror's underestimation of the locals. A fairly common theme in fantasy.

Tirza's family is tied to Castle Ocean, they belong there but to an extent it also keeps them prisoner. Their family's history is ingrained in the walls of the castle. The empire may represent culture, splendour, riches and advanced technology, none of it will be able to break the link with their home. It is the tragedy of Tirza, who was despised by her mother but loved by her siblings, that she is unable to communicate her feelings on the matter. As the Castle claims her siblings, the rift between her and the family's residence increases. She is torn between wanting to break away and wanting to protect her home until one of the two must give.

I'm very impressed with this novel. It is so tightly written and so well paced that I can't really find anything negative to say about it. Dragon Heart is one of those fantasies you can enjoy without committing to a sprawling series or a single huge tome. I have no idea if Holland planned sequels. It is not impossible to write more in this setting, but the story in Dragon Heart doesn't require it. Some readers may find it a bit too concise, preferring to spend more time with the many point of view characters. I feel Holland has the skill to give them depth in the short time we spend with them.In less than 300 pages, Holland packs everything a good fantasy needs. Something more than a few fantasy authors should take note of.

Book Details
Title: Dragon Heart
Author: Cecelia Holland
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 288
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-4668-3649-5
First published: 2015