I’ve been reading Melanie Rawn’s DRAGON PRINCE and DRAGON STAR trilogies because the audio versions of this late 1980s / early 1990s fantasy epic are just now being released in audio format and Tantor Audio has sent me review copies. Stronghold (1990) is the first book in the DRAGON STAR trilogy but it’s really just book four of the DRAGON PRINCE trilogy. I have no idea why the epic was divided into two trilogies since you must read DRAGON PRINCE if you hope to have any clue about what’s going on in DRAGON STAR.
Perhaps the division is signaling a change in focus from Rohan and Sioned’s generation to that of Prince Pol. At this point in the story, Pol has taken on more and more of his father Rohan’s duties, though the two men have different philosophies about some aspects of their reign. This hasn’t caused any problems so far because their empire has been at peace for thirty years (Rohan and Sioned are in their early 60s), thanks to Rohan’s skillful and benevolent leadership and the help of his powerful Sunrunner wife.
Eventually, though, the long-lasting peace is interrupted when a huge army of barbarian soldiers arrives on their shores and begins, for no apparent reason, killing people (especially Sunrunners), burning towns, and capturing castles. Rohan, who is a little too old to be fighting, must rally his allies to defeat the invaders. Meanwhile, some of the nobility realize this is a chance to make a bid for power and they start scheming to usurp Rohan’s place as High Prince.
Stronghold starts off slowly as Melanie Rawn reacquaints us with her huge cast of characters and attempts to remind us who they are, how they’re all related to each other, and whether they’re loyal or disloyal to Rohan and his family. It had been over a year since I read the previous book, Sunrunner’s Fire, and, as I mentioned in my review of that book, I never really took to these characters, so I struggled to recall important details about some of them and was forced to go to the internet to refresh my memory (I think the print version contains a cast of characters). But for those who haven’t been away for too long, Rawn does a good job with this section of the book, jogging our memories as we watch the characters teasing each other, playing with their kids, caring for sick loved ones, etc. This was terribly boring for me since (1) I don’t feel anything for any of Rawn’s characters and (2) I tend to be impatient with these sorts of mundane activities.
Finally, about a quarter of the way through the long novel, the action begins when the invaders show up and everyone starts either dying, fighting, retreating, or scheming. Stronghold gets more interesting at this point, especially because Rohan and Pol disagreed about their tactics but, still, there was way more dialog and drama than action. Every move our protagonists make is debated at length before it happens. There is so much talking!
This epic is like a long-running soap opera with multiple generations of people living in several different castles who are all connected somehow through births, marriages, and affairs. It’s not easy to keep track of all of them, especially when you don’t care that much about any of them. Oh, and some of them have very similar names because they’re named after another family member, so their identities were occasionally difficult to parse in the audio version which was nicely narrated by Christa Lewis (though I found her tendency to give everyone “uppercrust” European accents to be a little annoying).
A fault of this series that I’ve mentioned before is the lack of a sense of place. Most of the main characters live in the desert, but we never really feel the desert. It doesn’t seem particularly hot or dry and we have never seen them struggle to get food, water, or other supplies. This becomes a major problem in this novel because their tactic for defeating the barbarian army is to let the desert do it for them. Since I have never thought of the desert as an obstacle, I didn’t feel like this was a reasonable option. It also bothered me that nobody thought to go ask the (swarthy) barbarians why they were there and what they wanted.
The end of the Stronghold is eventful and tragic. Readers who love this series (and there are so many!) will not want to miss the important events that happen at the end. (I just wish it hadn’t taken 592 pages to get there.) The story continues in the next book, The Dragon Token.