The Dragon Lords: False Idols by Jon Hollins
I rather liked Jon Hollins’ 2016 novel The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold. It was fun, it had heart, it was surprisingly insightful, and it was chock-full of wordplay and schemes in addition to epic battles and blood. Its 2017 sequel, The Dragon Lords: False Idols, inherited a lot of those traits but comes up short on the fun that previously enchanted me.
The situation is rather more serious this time around: our merry band of adventurers is scattered across the south and south-eastern reaches of Avarra, spending their vast fortunes or trading on their newfound fame and power, until the human prophets of a dragon-worshipping cult start showing up and making life difficult for Lette, Balur, Quirk, and Will. Firkin is back, too, and Hollins takes his time in explaining the peculiarities and oddly magnetic charisma of Will’s mentor and former farmhand, but the wait turns out to have a tremendous pay-off. The mysterious hand of fate guides them all back together, along with Afrit, a professor at the Tamathian University where Quirk resides. Afrit’s specialty is practical politics, which means she spends a lot of time lecturing characters on the far-reaching consequences of actions like overthrowing an entire government while Balur fantasizes about eating peoples’ faces, Will is just sort of … present, Quirk tries not to enjoy burning people to death, and Lette cleans her knives.
None of the players are particularly happy about being drawn back together, especially when the circumstances involve the wholesale slaughter of cities and governments. The dragon-cults are happy to murder anyone who doesn’t fall into line with them, while the bands of resistance against the dragon-cults are just as happy to murder anyone who doesn’t stand with them. Hollins is completely honest about how terrible this situation is, regardless of where any character stands, but raising the stakes from “killing some dragons and freeing a small parcel of land from their influence” to “killing an uncountable number of people while a bunch of angry dragons take revenge by killing an uncountable number of people” does tend to suck the fun out of a narrative when the only person having a good time is Balur. Nearly everyone else in False Idols is appropriately grim and pragmatic about the bloodshed, but that doesn’t stop any of it from happening. And not only do the dragons pose a threat to humanity’s existence, but Hollins brings Avarra’s small cluster of gods into sharper focus, further muddying the waters and splintering the narrative.
Over the course of nearly 600 pages, it all becomes a little wearying and mind-numbing, and the witty banter which helped keep Fool’s Gold afloat is generally replaced here by a lot of hurt feelings and awkward conversations that skirt around the issues without actually confronting them. The action scenes, similarly, spend a lot of time spinning the narrative’s wheels without making a lot of progress. However, right around the last third of the book, the gears driving the plot come together and the characters discover an urgency and sense of purpose that they’d been sorely lacking.
More than anything, False Idols feels like a too-long placeholder novel between Fool’s Gold and the third DRAGON LORDS novel, Bad Faith, scheduled for publication in August 2018. The way in which False Idols concludes, along with what I know about Bad Faith from reading the jacket copy, gives me hope that the adventure to come will be more compelling and tightly-focused than the one I just experienced. Time will tell.
It sounds like it might rally with Book Three.