If you’re a fan of heist stories — particularly the planning, the bickering between co-conspirators, the moments when it all goes dreadfully wrong or sublimely right — and you also happen to enjoy epic fantasies with vicious fire-breathing dragons and their vast caches of filthy lucre, then you’ll be happy to know that there’s a Venn diagram where those two genres meet, and the center is filled by Jon Hollins’ debut fantasy novel, The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold.
In the lovely but oppressed Kondorra valley, humans farm and fish and pay taxes to the Dragon Consortium, a united band of dragons who demand exorbitant amounts of gold every year and take pleasure in using their subjects for aerial target practice. The people are downtrodden, miserable, and in desperate need of salvation from a band of heroes worthy of toasts and bard-sung epics. They get Will, a quick-thinking farmer who has hit his breaking point with the dragons and their human soldiers; Firkin, Will’s father’s former farmhand, long lost to madness and drink; swordswoman Lette and eight-foot-tall lizardman Balur, traveling mercenaries seeking wealth and booty; and Quirk, a middle-aged thaumatobiologist from Tamathian University who studies magical creatures and plants, and who harbors a powerful secret. Thrown together seemingly by chance, these adventurers might be the best shot the Kondorran people have, if they don’t all get eaten or roasted alive first.
Kondorra is a small bit of land compared to the rest of the continent of Avarra, the vastness of which is hinted at in small flashbacks featuring Quirk, Balur, and Lette’s pasts. Will’s village (so small that it’s simply named The Village) and his family’s farm have been his whole world, but there are fascinating and intriguing hints at what lie beyond, and I look forward to seeing more of Avarra and its inhabitants. Lette and Quirk are women with markedly divergent backgrounds and goals, and they contribute as strongly to Fool’s Gold as Will and Balur. Balur, himself, has a habit of beating grammar to a bloody pulp with his tongue, but by no means does that signify that he’s simple-minded. Firkin’s madness is convincingly portrayed, though I would have liked to see a bit more explanation regarding his background: he’s managed to come by a lot of crucial dragon-related information, and I wish Hollins had touched on just how Firkin knew certain details.
Overall, Hollins has a deft touch, propelling the story along at a refreshingly brisk pace and providing plenty of conflicts for the characters to grumble over or hack to pieces, depending on the situation. Character dialogue and interactions sparkle, and the format of their narratives are all slightly different, solidifying the concept that five separate experiences have been captured in one tale. With chapter titles like “The Sappy Romance Chapter,” “Nom Nom Ethel Nom,” “What’s in the Box?,” and “Planning for the Funeral,” it’s obvious where Hollins’ sense of humor lies, and though the general style is frequently conversational (other readers might call it “coarse”), there’s a surprising emotional depth to the members of this motley crew. Each of the four principal players is at a crossroads of personal growth — though Firkin is happy to jam beetles in his mouth and shout nonsensically — and the events of the novel have serious consequences for them all. Fool’s Gold isn’t just curse words and head-smashing for the fun of it; there’s a series of scenes near the end which embody the drama and glory of truly epic fantasy. Hollins takes what could have felt like a clumsy pastiche and instead delivers a seamless, multi-faceted whole.
I’ve seen comparisons for The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold to cultural touchstones like The Hobbit and Guardians of the Galaxy, and while those reference points might be useful, they certainly aren’t all-encompassing. There’s much more to this novel than its slight pop culture similarities, and readers who dive into its pages will be richly rewarded. As a stand-alone novel, it’s extremely satisfying; as the beginning of a proposed series, it promises excitement and thrills for years to come. Highly recommended.