Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Dogfood Chronicles: "Draykon" by Charlotte E. English

Well, it's been almost four entire months and I have kept fast to my New Year's resolution to read only self-published fiction in 2012. As promised, I offer the next review in what I'm calling the Dogfood Chronicles: Draykon, a fantasy novel by Charlotte E. English.

Just as I explained how I came to be reading the first installment to this adventure in self-pub reading, I feel that it is useful to describe how I discovered each title in turn. This isn't just in the interest of declaring any predispositions or biases on my part regarding the author in question, but it also highlights the various different way in which people connect with self-published books. What I'm learning is that there is a strong social component at work here, arguably even more so than with traditionally published materials.  In the case of Draykon, I had the good fortune of receiving a positive review of my own book Confessions of a Gourmand by Ms. English a couple of years ago. This lead to a friendly correspondence whereby I learned that she too had written and self-published several of her own fantasy novels.

Draykon is a work of high fantasy, set in a fictional realm which loosely suggests England and Continental Europe but is very much its own world, overlaid with an interesting cosmology consisting of Upper and Lower Realms (more about those later). When our heroine - a young jeweler named Llandry Sanfaer - stumbles upon a cache of a unique gemstone she names istore, Llandry finds her wares are suddenly in great demand throughout not just her always-sunny native Glinnery and its darkling counterpart Glour but elsewhere in the so-called Seven Realms and beyond. Being the center of attention is bad enough for Llandry, who is painfully shy by nature, but when people connected to her jewelry begin to turn up dead she must overcome her fears and embark on an adventure to discover the truth about her precious istore and uncover an ancient secret with world-shattering implications.

Interwoven with this plot is the tale of Lady Evastany Glostrum, one of Glour's most powerful and respected sorceresses, tasked with keeping her world safe from threats from the Upper and Lower Realms. On the verge of her own high society wedding, Lady Glostrum is also drawn into the novel's central mystery when a dear friend is murdered by a sinister otherworldly creature. Who is behind the recent intrusions between the Realms, and why will they stop at nothing to obtain every last piece of Miss Sanfaer's istore? To answer these questions, Lady Glostrum must leave her life of position and privilege and put her abilities to the test against unseen foes whose mastery of forbidden magics call into question everything she has been taught about the relationship between the Seven Realms, the Uppers, and the Lowers.

I found Draykon to be a well-crafted novel with two believable female protagonists at its heart. The author poses an interesting challenge for herself in portraying Llandry not just an introvert, but someone who struggles with full-blown agoraphobia and a pair of overprotective parents to boot; in a similar vein, Lady Glostrum, although a strong and capable woman, is shown nevertheless as chafing against both the humdrum of an administrator's career and society's expectations for a female of her station. To compensate for these constraints, Ms. English arranges Llandry and Lady Glostrum in counterpoint to one another- an ambitious choice, but one that effectively splits the narrative until the very end, a la Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire. Some may find this off-putting, but I thought it worked rather well.

If I have any real quibble with this book, however, it is that it is almost too polished for its own good.  Writers are enjoined not to tell, but to show. While this is usually sound advice, I feel that in this case Ms. English has followed it at the expense of her own setting. Draykon is one of the more imaginative fantasy milieus I have encountered in my reading, but many of its exotic elements - such as the aforementioned Upper and Lower Realms, which end up figuring heavily into the plot - feel insufficiently explained. Being a writer of fantasy myself, I understand that it is always a delicate balancing act between fleshing out your universe and advancing the story, but I wish that the author had trusted herself with a little more world-building indulgence here and there.

That being said, Draykon is an excellent read- filled with intrigue, suspense, and action.  It is also the first in a series of novels, so I look forward to many happy returns to this uniquely-imagined world!

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