Sunday, October 25, 2015

Drakenvuur - An Janssens

I only read a couple of Dutch language novels every year. While I do like to stay in touch with what goes on in the small but vibrant fantasy community in the Dutch-speaking part of the world, these novels are almost always a few steps behind in craft and professionalism compared to the bulk of my reading. My reviews of Dutch language works tend to focus more on the technical side of writing, (structure, pacing, plotting) than on language, themes or interpretation of the novel. While there are some very talented people out there, a lot of what is being published is substandard. There are reasons for that. Nobody can make a living writing fantasy in the Netherlands. There are no magazines and very few other places to publish short works, the number of professional editors in he field is limited and the few publishers with resources tend to be more interested in translated works. Being a fantasy writer in the Netherlands with aspirations of writing a novel that can compete in international company is hard indeed.

An Janssens is one of the few authors being backed by a large publisher, a privilege she won in a writing contest a couple of years ago. Drakenvuur (literally: Dragon's Fire) is the concluding volume of the trilogy that started with Drakenkoningin in 2013. I picked up the first two volumes at the local bookstore but the third book I received directly from the author. This may seem surprising. The reviews of Drakenkoningin and Drakentovenaar were not exactly  jubilant. There is a story behind this of course and maybe I'll tell you about it some other time. Right now we are going to focus on the book.

For seven centuries a magical barrier has divided the north and the south. Slowly the north has cooled and the south warmed to the point where both of them are becoming uninhabitable. The leaders on both sides of the barrier understand something needs to be done to prevent the extinction of their peoples but neither has the skill and power to undo the magical damage wrought on the world by the powerful wizards of the past. Tentative contact has been made and now the time for bolder action has arrived. Var, Wizard-King of the south sets out to meet the Dragon Queen of the north. Together with their companions they set out to save the world, or break it forever.

With the first and second volume in the trilogy set primarily in the north and south respectively, this book is the first opportunity to see the two sides interact fully. Groups of characters from both novels make an appearance in the book and most of them get a point of view. I counted five major point of view characters and two minor ones. To accommodate the crowd, Janssens writes even shorter chapters in this novel. Drakenkoningin has 19 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Drakentovenaar, which is approximately the same length, has 32 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Drakenvuur has 47 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. It must be noted that the page count of the final book is a bit higher than the other two though. It's no surprise then, that the novel moves at the same breakneck speed as the previous two books. In fact, the rapid changes in point of view, especially towards the end of the novel, give it the appearance of even more speed.

Janssens has grown more adept at saying more with fewer words but some readers will feel that being forced to look at the story from a different angle every few pages is a bit too much of a good thing. It also doesn't do the characters any favours in terms of development. Nevsemir for instance, is struggling with what can best be described as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Something she conveniently shrugs off when it really matters. Var, who like in the previous novel, is manipulated at every turn, easily forgives Thala for yet another piece of misdirection. Thala herself struggles with the secret she is keeping from Var but the whole thing is quickly brushed aside when it comes out. None of them seem to have a moment to spare to consider the rather large number of casualties among the population of both the north and the south their campaign to save the world demands. Like in the previous two volumes, many things that could have made the story more challenging, and in my opinion a more satisfactory read, are sacrificed to the demands of a fast paced plot.

Drakenvuur is a book built on shaky foundations. It has inherited the problems of the first two volumes and these issues show in the final instalment as well. That being said, there are elements in the novel that show Janssens growth as a writer. When she  wrote the first novel, it was by no means certain there would be a second volume. There clearly was a bit of improving involved in the creation of this trilogy. Where the first and second book are more or less separate stories, only slightly related to each other, in this novel she must find a way to unify the two halves of her tale. A lack of foreshadowing in the previous volumes sometimes crops up in some elements of the tale. The magic employed by the characters is one area where she succeeds into creating a coherent fusion of the previous two volumes. The abilities and limitations of each of the forms of magic are well thought out. Probably the best element of worldbuilding in this novel.

Janssens' trilogy is a good example of why I don't read many works in Dutch. On the one hand it is brimming with potential, enthusiasm and love for the genre. On the other you can feel the heavy hand of the editor speeding things up and removing the peculiarities of the author's style from the text. What remains is a trilogy that is marketable but not surprising. A fantasy that is both limited by the author's inexperience and the publisher's ambition. Had it been among the English language books on the bookshelves I would have passed it without looking twice. Looking on the bright side, Janssens was presented with an opportunity and she took it. A rare chance to be published as professionally as is possible in this part of the world. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, her writing has gotten better over the course of the trilogy. I hope she can take that experience with her and go on to create something that is a bit more challenging and a bit less traditional. I think she has the talent to do it. It will be interesting to see where she will go from here. Despite not being blown away by Janssens' Song of Ice and Fire, I will be keeping an eye out for the next one with her name on it.

Book Details
Title: Drakenvuur
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 316
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6776-8
First published: 2015

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