Auron, the lead dragon in E. E. Knight’s first Age of Fire novel, takes more abuse than Jesus in the hands of Mel Gibson. He gets stabbed in the lung, his throat cut, his tail amputated, and other little prickles that after a while must be to him no more than nuisances. His mother warns him about how his scaleless hide leaves him vulnerable, but one has to wonder if these dragons have unnatural healing powers from how much he survives. What he goes through is painful to watch, and by the end I felt like I’d been tied to a pole for days while getting sprayed in the face with a fire hose every few minutes. And yet I enjoyed it enough to finish in less than four days.

That’s quick for me.

Auron’s survival instincts drive much of the violence, a unique angle for fantasy literature. From the beginning Auron hatches and kills his clutch brother, crippling the other before he gets away. This happens in all dragon clutches. The males won’t tolerate another in their presence. I didn’t care for that one bit, and after reading the first chapter, it was enough to send the book back to my shelf for two years, but it does set the tone that these dragons aren’t going to play by our rules. They have their own morality.

(Thankfully, as Auron grows, he believes it to be a problem. In a world where dragons are dwindling, having part of the clutch end up dead from the beginning doesn’t matters.)

Yes, to dive into Auron’s world, you have to accept a different set of rules. These dragons are intelligent, but of a different intelligence brought on by how they’ve evolved in their world. Auron has to kill to eat and he doesn’t discriminate. An unfortunate deer is just as much food as a child who strayed too far from safety. Yes, he eats children. I know that’s put some people off, but I’m glad Knight had the courage to do that.

It’s a joy watching Auron grow and learn about his world. At first all is new and overwhelming; leaving his birth cave for the first time feels so wrong. He’s controlled heavily by his instincts, but as he ages we see more thought and understanding. Reasoning develops. Throughout the book he’s hunted by all forms of humanoids: humans, dwarfs, elves, and blighters, a rather trollish race of the author’s creation. At first it seems all men are the enemy, though once Auron finds the bravery to approach some of them, we realize they’re as varied as in real life.  There’s good and bad all around. Knight has created a mythology explaining why the different races, dragons included, behave to one another as they do, though not everyone subscribes to that.

I enjoyed the friendships he made. This includes some animals. He learns how they speak and even joins a wolf pack for a while, ironically after slaughtering several of them.

Did I mention this book is bloody?

One friendship in particular I enjoyed, though I ended up highly disappointed at what became of it. Knight keeps hinting at something that would have been immensely satisfying, but never lets it go there. For all the stones he has, he dropped them with this plot thread. Auron gets something he wants eventually, but to me it was a let down. Yes, I was happy for him, but it’s like if someone told me we were getting Thai for dinner but at the last second we end up having Chinese instead. Sure, it’ll be good, but disappointing in comparison.

The story moves quickly, and while there is little time to stop and admire the scenery, Knight gives the reader just enough to feel a part of the world. This relates to the environment as well as the characters. When Auron’s wings finally come in, you can feel your own back itching and smell the pus and fluids gushing from his. Your gut’ll hurt when his talons disembowel someone. Crushing a severely burnt man sounds, and even feels like stepping on a cicada husk.

Terrible things happen to good people. It’s emotionally taxing to get attached to anyone.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many good characters brutalized or killed. Knight wins the award for most cringe moments in one novel. As sensitive as I can be, I actually enjoyed his honesty in showing what he did; like in the real world, terrible things can happen to the best of people. The violence excites something deep in the reptile brain; the surrounding action excites and engages. He can do this while still affecting the heart (I’m surprised Auron wasn’t stabbed there . . .)

I handled it all well until a scene near the end that was a bit too much. I was shaking and lost my appetite for a few days and wanted to go out and scream. It was a combination of defenselessness, enjoyed cruelty, unbelievable disrespect, the nature of the character involved, and the fact that Auron’s reaction was so subdued. I know in part he was having to put on an act, but a little rage at the least would have eased the pain. You want your protagonist to feel what you’re feeling. A certain son-of-a-bitch could have had a more satisfying death for that matter, especially after what we had seen up until then. As much of a peacenik as I am, Knight made me want blood. Or worse. All of this was after a prior revelation that had me rather upset. I’ll just say the animosity male dragons have for one other played a big part here. If Knight wanted the final setting to be a nightmare, he succeeded.

After Auron escapes there were two quick scenes that could have worked better in reverse order. It’s like Knight never wanted us to get a chance to relax. Here and there it’s okay to take your foot off the gas. There are a few scenes in the middle that ease up the pace. He had me craving more. Moments of comfort would have made the whole more satisfying. You cherish the ones you get even more when they’re rare. Maybe that’s what he wanted.

Overall I really did enjoy the novel. Even the one shot characters were great, like the sea turtle and vulture. As I wait on the sequel to come in the mail (our Barnes and Noble had the whole series but that one) I’ve picked up another book, but it feels wrong. I need to be back in this story’s world. It seems so much larger than what one book can give you. I might just set it down and wait. My nerves could use a few more days to cool down anyway.

I’m glad this series is published in trade paperbacks. I’m spoiled. I’m getting them all in that format, even though they cost twice as much. It’s a good thing Santa brought me a Barnes and Noble gift card. The covers are excellent too:

Enjoy watching this guy get turned into a pin cushion, you sadists.

It’ll probably be more of the same with his sister in the next book.

Advertisements