The Adamantine Palace is classic fantasy with all the major ingredients: magic, dragons, knights, castles and all the trimmings. There is, however, one missing element: the hero. Stephen Deas writes a really interesting, very complex first novel, kicking off the Memory of Flames series, but I can’t figure out who the hero is.
The point of view in The Adamantine Palace switches among five major characters. At times Deas takes us behind the eyes of a few other characters, but there are five major players, three of whom are really central. Between Prince Jehal (a truly Machiavellian villain), Queen Shezira, and Speaker Hyram, these are as sordid and despicable a crew of power hungry nobility as any in George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows. These are the kind of morally bankrupt nobles that make every peasant uprising seem like a just response.
The best part of The Adamantine Palace is the dragons. Deas doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about how they look or the biology that makes them tick; it’s assumed that the reader knows and understands them. Dragons are at the very heart of the culture Deas has built. The relationship between humans and dragons is at the core of the book, and makes for some interesting story events. These are complex beings, not just stupid overgrown lizards who can fly and breathe fire.
Unusually, the relationships and scheming among the characters seem to fill up a lot more of the book than does the traditional “adventure to save the world” plot. This is remarkable in that Deas seems to ignore the classic fantasy formula of heroes on a quest to save the world. With no real heroes, and more page time devoted to politics than to epic questing, The Adamantine Palace is a departure from the formula.
I really liked The Adamantine Palace and I look forward to the next book, The King of Crags. This comes as a complete surprise to me because I normally struggle with books in which I can’t find a character to connect with. Deas gives classic fantasy a unique twist, and I am really curious to see where he will take us from here.
In recent years, UK publisher Gollancz has introduced a number of exciting new speculative fiction writers including Richard K. Morgan, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Jonathan Barnes, and Robert V.S. Redick just to name a few. That trend continues with Stephen Deas, author of The Adamantine Palace.
The Adamantine Palace is an epic fantasy novel that combines old-school fantasy traits — think Terry Brooks, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, etc. — with edgier, more contemporary ones. Of the former, the book is inundated with names and titles that could be straight out of Dungeons & Dragons — The City of Dragons, the Purple Spur, the Diamond Cascade Waterfalls, the Mirror Lakes, Fury River, the Plains of the Hungry Mountain, the Order of the Scales, the Worldspine, et cetera — while the author employs several familiar fantasy tropes including a medieval setting complete with kings, queens, princes, princesses and knights, not to mention the multiple third-person narratives, being part of a multi-volume series and of course, the dragons.
On the flipside, The Adamantine Palace does mess around with a few time-honored conventions. Take for instance the dragons who, in a clear nod to Anne McCaffrey and Naomi Novik, are domesticated creatures ruled over by humans. As the novel progresses however, we learn that the only reason the dragons are tame are because of chemicals that suppress their intelligence and their memories of a time when dragons ruled the world. Factor in the Scales — people infected with the Hatchling Disease who are responsible for the care of dragons — the alchemists, their possible rebirth after death, and their burning hatred for humans, and it becomes clear that these dragons are not quite the same as those found on Pern or in Temeraire.
Giving the book its edgier, more contemporary look meanwhile, are the characters and plot. At first glance, a cast of scheming princes and queens, over-the-hill kings, and money-hungry sell-swords may seem overly familiar, but Stephen Deas does a great job of constantly surprising the reader. Main characters are killed off without warning, the villains are more likeable than the heroes, good guys become bad guys, and bit players suddenly become major ones. Admittedly, characterization is shallow compared to someone like Robin Hobb or Jacqueline Carey, but Jehal, Shezira, Snow and company are a fun bunch to follow.
As far as the Machiavellian plot which revolves around princes and queens maneuvering to become the next Speaker of the Nine Realms, I was reminded of the many-sided struggle between the different Houses found in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, although The Adamantine Palace is not nearly as complex or dramatic. Tone-wise, The Adamantine Palace is highly accessible in the vein of Terry Brooks, David Farland, or Greg Keyes, but is spiked with a streak of Joe Abercrombie-like humor and nastiness.
Pacing was the book’s most surprising quality with The Adamantine Palace moving at a breakneck rate from start to finish, punctuated by very short chapters. Personally, I found the rapid tempo to be a refreshing change of pace from the more long-winded fantasy series out there, but the world-building comes up noticeably short and is an area that needs work, particularly in regards to the Taiytakei, the alchemists, blood magic, the dragon-priests, Soul Dust, the King of the Crags, and the history and customs of the different Realms.
Overall, I really enjoyed Stephen Deas’ The Adamantine Palace — more than The Red Wolf Conspiracy and nearly as much as The Blade Itself. It’s a fun and entertaining debut that will appeal to fans of both classic and contemporary fantasy. In short, Gollancz has discovered another winner…
Memory of Flames — (2009-2015) Publisher: The Adamantine Palace lies at the centre of an empire that grew out of ashes. Once dragons ruled the world and man was little more than prey. Then a way of subduing the dragons alchemicly was discovered and now the dragons are bred to be little more than mounts for knights and highly valued tokens in the diplomatic power-players that underpin the rule of the competing aristocratic houses. The Empire has grown fat. And now one man wants it for himself. A man prepared to poison the king just as he has poisoned his own father. A man prepared to murder his lover and bed her daughter. A man fit to be king? But uknown to him there are flames on the way. A single dragon has gone missing. And even one dragon on the loose, unsubdued, returned to its full intelligence, its full fury, could spell disaster for the Empire. But because of the actions of one unscrupulous mercenary the rivals for the throne could soon be facing hundreds of dragons… Stephen Deas has written a fast moving and action-fuelled fantasy laced with irony, a razor sharp way with characters, dialogue to die for and dragons to die by.