fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review James Maxey Dragon Age 1: BitterwoodBitterwood by James Maxey

In James Maxey‘s Bitterwood, dragons rule the planet and humans are their slaves. These dragons are not your average fantasy dragons because they have formed a community and culture and are ruled by a king. Not your typical fire-breathing, treasure hoarding dragon, right?

The premise for Bitterwood is good, but the writing just felt uneven. There were times when the characters felt shallow and too contrived and the storyline seemed to be out of control — too many highs and lows.

Maxey does a good job of explaining events after they have happened, so that you get a larger perspective. I just didn’t enjoy the characters themselves very much. They didn’t come alive for me because too often their reactions felt canned — like they had to do something a certain way because that’s the type of character they are.

Bitterwood was not a bad book but, as fantasy goes, it’s a medium level product.

~John Hulet

fantasy book review James Maxey Dragon Age 1: BitterwoodFollowing in the footsteps of Gail Z. Martin’s The Summoner and Emily Gee’s Thief With No Shadow comes Solaris Books’ latest fantasy offering Bitterwood, written by James Maxey, a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and Orson Scott Card‘s Writer’s Boot Camp, and whose previous works include the Phobos Award-winning short story “Empire of Dreams & Miracles,” the comic book-inspired debut novel “Nobody Gets the Girl,” and various other short stories.

Much like The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin, Bitterwood is a fast-paced, sword-and-sorcery adventure that focuses more on nonstop thrills and action of the mainstream variety, rather than any detailed characterization, worldbuilding or complex plotting. Unlike The Summoner, Bitterwood plays around with some unconventional ideas not usually found in the fantasy genre. For starters, the book is set in a far-future, technology-less Earth where dragons have become the dominant species and humans are nothing more than slaves. Obviously this brings up some interesting questions like, “Where did dragons come from?”, “How did they subvert mankind?” and “Why did the world revert back to a primitive state?” among other mysteries. While some of these issues are eventually answered, the revelations are not quite as enlightening or astonishing as the author tries to portray them and I would have appreciated more background information surrounding these monumental historical events (and other related topics) rather than the condensed details we do get.

Of course the setting is not the book’s only novelty; there is also the viewpoint of the characters in Bitterwood. While insurgent Bant Bitterwood is considered the main protagonist, the majority of the story is actually told from the perspective of dragons, namely their king Albekizan, his son Shandrazel, the wizard Vendevorex, Zanzeroth the hunter, the High Biologian Metron, and the king’s reviled brother Blasphet. A few other humans are also in the mix including Jandra, Vendevorex’s apprentice, Pet, and a little girl called Zeeky, but the dragons are the main attraction. I particularly enjoyed Vendevorez and Blasphet the most, but each of the dragon characters are fun to follow because they all have their own agenda, and it’s interesting to see them trying to outwit one another. About the only real issue I had with the dragons was that they thought and acted too much like the humans. Speaking of which, the actual people in Bitterwood are definitely the weaker characters in the book — Jandra is too emotional and tends to be annoying as does Pet; Zeeky seems almost pointless (though I expect we could see much more of her in a sequel); and Bant is a pretty formulaic ‘anti-hero’ type who lives only for revenge, though I did enjoy his flashback stories and there are parts of him I found refreshing such as his age and appearance. As a whole, the characterization is not one of the book’s strong points, but the characters are interesting enough to help Bitterwood work successfully as a novel, and at least the author shakes things up with a few surprising deaths.

As far as the story, it’s pretty basic stuff. A dragon is murdered by the legendary Bitterwood and spurred by that event Albekizan declares that all humans will be wiped out. From there, various plotlines converge, both of the more personal kind — vengeance, self-sacrifice, etc. — and the larger variety such as the fate of mankind. Also thrown in are elements of Christianity, warring prophets (Kamon + Ragnar), moral issues dealing with hatred and forgiveness, a quest for immortality, and some nice surprises regarding the origin of dragons, the downfall of humanity, who is Hezekiah, Bant, and the secret behind Vendevorex’s magic. By the end, the majority of issues are resolved in Bitterwood, though enough threads are left over for further exploration.

For the most part I enjoyed Bitterwood. It was a quick read with plenty of action and some cool concepts…after all, who doesn’t like dragons? I just felt the book had the potential to be so much better if only the worldbuilding had been more extensive, the characters further defined, the book a little less accessible and instead, darker and edgier. I can’t complain too much though. James Maxey does an admirable job with Bitterwood in constructing the story, employing some fresh ideas and injecting the novel with undeniable zest.

The prose may not exactly be descriptive or rich, and Bitterwood lacks in certain areas like the establishing of worlds and characterization, but the writing overall is consistent, confident and passionate, enough so to help overlook most of the book’s weak spots. In short, you have to give James Maxey respect for trying to do something different with the genre, and while he doesn’t wholly succeed, Bitterwood is a solid fantasy adventure that should be another successful release for Solaris Books.

~Robert Thompson

Bitterwood (Dragon Age) — (2007-2013) Tornado of Sparks and Dawn of Dragons are prequels. Publisher: Bitterwood has spent the past twenty years hunting down dragons, one at a time. But he is getting old and the hate that he has carried in his heart since a group of dragon-soldiers killed his family is beginning to fade. When he kills the royal prince dragon, the king decides the only retribution is genocide of the human race. Bitterwood is forced to enter the Free City, the grand trap designed to eradicate mankind, with thousands of others. Can he lead from within, or can a select few dragons unite to stop the king’s madness from becoming reality. Full of rich characters and drama, this is an amazingly astute vision of our own culture by way of a feudal kingdom where dragons rule, and humans are used as workers or pets.

James Maxey Dragon Age: 1. Bitterwood 2. DragonForge 3. DragonseedJames Maxey Dragon Age: 1. Bitterwood 2. Dragon Forge 3. DragonseedJames Maxey Dragon Age: 1. Bitterwood 2. Dragon Forge 3. Dragonseed

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  • John Hulet

    JOHN HULET is a member of the Utah Army National Guard. John’s experiences have often left a great void that has been filled by countless hours spent between the pages of a book lost in the words and images of the authors he admires. During a 12 month tour of Iraq, he spent well over $1000 on books and found sanity in the process. John lives in Utah and works slavishly to prepare soldiers to serve their country with the honor and distinction that Sturm Brightblade or Arithon s’Ffalenn would be proud of. John retired from FanLit in March 2015 after being with us for nearly 8 years. We still hear from him every once in a while.

  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.