Cecelia Holland’s Dragon Heart had so much potential, with its gothic, Mervyn Peake-like setting and darkly surreal family dynamics. Unfortunately, Dragon Heart never fulfilled its promise, marred especially by a frustrating lack of fluidity or cohesion.
The relatively slim novel (about 270 pages) is set mostly in Castle Ocean, home to the ruling family of a small coastal land threatened (and really mostly-conquered) by an aggressive large empire to the east. The former king was killed by the Empire, leaving his queen with little choice but to marry one of the Emperor’s brothers. In fact, she has already killed the first brother-fiancé, but now a second inhabits Castle Ocean, waiting only the return of Tirza — the queen’s daughter — lost at sea, before he weds the queen.
How Tirza was lost is the story of the first chapter. The young princess — highly intelligent, more than a little fey, and able to speak only in unintelligible grunts and shrieks — was traveling with her twin, Prince Jeon, when their ship was attacked by a sea dragon. All save Tirza were apparently slain, and she becomes the long-time captive of the dragon, staying alive in Scheherazade-fashion by telling stories each night. Eventually she escapes and makes her way home to Castle Ocean, where she finds her family beset by the Emperor’s brother and his two sons Oto (desirous of one of Tirza’s older sisters) and Broga.
One of Dragon Heart’s strengths is that caste setting, a bit reminiscent of Gormenghast. Corridors seems to come and go, hallways end in blank walls even though someone had just walked down the corridor, doors appear and disappear, recently constructed walls disappear. Dark, otherworldly, wholly unfathomable and even impassable to its would-be conquerors, readers are unsure if the castle is haunted or alive. Holland’s descriptive passages centered on the castle are wonderfully vivid.
Another strength is the castle’s rulers. Queen Marioza is as fiercely impregnable as the castle itself. Tirza’s sisters Casea and Mervaly are compellingly odd in different fashion — Casea with a bit of the sixth sense and Mervaly with her love of birds. Meanwhile, the older brother Luka’s interest is born out of his attempts to find a relatively non-violent way out of the political predicament his family finds itself in.
Unfortunately, as mentioned, while this combination of setting and character laid the foundation for a great read, it never materialized. The story rushes along with more than a few abrupt jumps, feeling at times almost like it wanted to be a collection of linked stories rather than a novel with rough transitions and events happening with too little set up. That rushed feeling also affected the characters, with most feeling like they could have been interesting but since we spend so little time with them they feel a bit too much like character sketches than full-blooded people.
Meanwhile, plot events too often feel random and context-free, there is little sense of a big picture or long-term goals, and some action/plot points simply make no sense. Tirza can’t be understood by her family thanks to her speech problem, but unless I missed it, there’s no explanation of why she, highly intelligent, can’t write or draw pictures to communicate. There no full understanding of the Empire — where it is, what its resources are, why it feels the need to cement Castle Ocean via marriage rather than conquest (especially after the queen kills one brother), why it sends so few soldiers, and the list goes on. Very little of the political maneuvering or actual fighting made much sense to me.
Stripped of some of its plot and characters, Dragon Heart could have made for a lyrical, eerie novella or long short story. Or, with some more fluid structure, better transitions, and more pages to fully set the background and flesh out the characters, it could have made a strong 400-page novel. But Dragon Heart as it stands is betwixt and between, with its flaws outweighing its strengths.