In Steal the Dragon, Patricia Briggs creates yet another strong, believable female protagonist in Rialla, a horse trainer and ex-slave from the country of Darran, who now lives in Sianim. (In fact, Steal the Dragon is technically part of a series called SIANIM, but as the books in the series do not share a lot of plot or characters, merely a setting, you don’t have to read the others to enjoy it.) She learns from the spymaster of Sianim that an influential lord in Darran would like to outlaw slavery, but that his life is in danger. Against her better judgment, she travels back to her home country in the guise of a slave to Laeth, her trusted friend and the brother to the lord of Darran. They hope to uncover the threat to Laeth’s brother and ensure the end to slavery.
Unfortunately, things go awry, Laeth is thrown in jail, and Rialla ends up as a slave again for real, under the cruel ownership of her old master. Worse, she realizes that this old master has been targeting slaves with empathic abilities. Rialla herself used to have these abilities but a childhood trauma caused her to shut down this part of herself. Now she works to rebuild her empathic abilities while working with a new friend, Tris, who has a mysterious magic of his own.
I enjoyed Steal the Dragon, but not as much as I enjoyed Briggs’ RAVEN duology. This story stuck more closely to the individual characters and conflicts they created, rather than expanding outward into a larger conflict with potentially earth-shattering consequences. As such, there wasn’t as much backstory or worldbuilding. However, I appreciated the hints I got of Sianim’s history and of the world around it, and I’m sure those are developed in the other books in the SIANIM series.
Rialla’s character was a highlight of Steal the Dragon. She is a former slave, a dancer, and a horse trainer; as such, she’s a woman comfortable in her body, who appreciates the fact that she owns herself. Briggs herself writes, on her website, that “there really was no such thing as an ex-slave. It’s something that sticks to you, like a rape or an abusive marriage.” Rialla’s freedom is the most important thing to her, but the spectre of slavery always haunts her. Her struggle to go back into slavery was upsetting to read, especially the part where her master’s son elects to use her for a night. Readers do not witness the actual rape but, especially in the wake of recent discussions about rape in fiction, I don’t think that this was necessary. We had a lot of evidence of how traumatic slavery was for Rialla without this extra bit.
I appreciated Rialla’s bantering friendship with Laeth; it was nice to see a platonic relationship on the page without constant hints that it would turn into a romance. And the romance itself between Rialla and Tris seemed based on mutual respect and friendship. It took its time, which made it more realistic and tender when it came to fruition. I was disappointed in one aspect of their relationship, though. Readers, if you’re interested in a spoiler, highlight the following text: Tris, a Sylvan (a sort of elf, I guess?), bonded Rialla at one point without her knowledge. For Sylvans, such a bond has the potential to be unbreakable if made between soulmates. Tris soon realizes that he and Rialla are, in fact, soulmates (you saw it coming, didn’t you?). This means that they will never be able to separate, but he does not tell her this until the end of the novel. [end spoiler] This seems tantamount to entrapment, something that I doubt Rialla, with her history as an ex-slave, would be okay with. Furthermore, I really hated the rhetoric Tris used to justify this action. I’m summarizing, but he said things like “I couldn’t live without you,” and “the thought of being apart from you makes me crazy/angry, etc.” This kind of language sends up a huge red flag for me. It’s the kind of thing abusive partners say, the kind of love language we hear in “epic” love stories like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. Needless to say, it was a turn-off.
I listened to Steal the Dragon on audiobook, narrated by Jennifer James Bradshaw. She did a great job differentiating the voices and making the story and Rialla’s reactions come to life.