The Dragons of Deepwood Fen is an enjoyable start to a new fantasy trilogy by Bradley P. Beaulieu. Though the novel has a few issues, Beaulieu offers up an interesting world, a complex political set-up, and a nicely original use of that old fantasy standby, the dragon.
Ancris is the chief city of a long-standing, aggressively imperialistic empire, with the “vassal state” of the Holt having held them off enough to carve out a small amount of self-rule (within the empire) under their political leader known as the Imperator. The Holt still chafes under imperial rule, with a group known as the Red Knives waging a campaign of guerrilla/terrorist violence. Meanwhile, Ancris is still not fully recovered from its own internal struggles, which had culminated years ago in an attempt by the Church to take over.
Into this fraught situation come our two main characters. Rylan is the bastard son of the Imperator (although the two have a strained relationship) and a dragon singer, one who can communicate with and heal dragons. He’s also half Kin, an ethnic group who lived in the Holt and whose people and rituals have been systematically oppressed. Part of that oppression is a ban on penalty of maiming or death of bonding with an “umbral” dragon, a type resistant to to the magical crops the Empire uses to control its dragons. Despite his better instincts, Rylan becomes entangled with the Red Knives on what he had hoped was a single task but which ends up with him pulled even deeper into their machinations.
Meanwhile, in Ancris, Lorelai is a gifted inquisitor who’s investigating the drug trade in the city leads her to uncover a connection between the Red Knives and the Church, particularly a fervent sect known as the Chosen, led by the mysterious Hissing Man. Like Rylan, she gets pulled ever deeper and eventually the two, working together, uncover a plot to raise an ancient magical force involving ancient artifacts, an undead, murder, and betrayals within betrayals.
Other point of view characters pepper the narrative, though with less page time: Rhiannon, a young girl with magical abilities coveted by the Red Knives; Azariah, leader of the Church in Ancris; Ordren, another Inquisitor; and The Hissing Man.
The political/thematic set up is nicely complex, with its multitude and variety of tensions: ethnic antagonism, conflict between states, family tension (parent-child, between brothers), church-state conflict, dissension amongst the oppressed over how to deal with their oppressor, and discord amongst conspirators. I also liked how the political conflict connected to the use of dragons in the novel, with the acute difference between bonding dragons with consent and binding them to your will via magical devices. A difference that also ties in nicely (or not) to the theme of imperialism, as both the type of dragon (umbral) and method of bonding are long-held traditions in the Holt, ones that have been ruthlessly suppressed by the Empire, even to the point of hunting umbral dragons nearly to extinction.
Dragons are also part of the magic system, as consuming a dragon scale will confer certain abilities depending on the type of dragon and where the scale came from on the dragon. It’s an interesting magic system, though I wish we had a somewhat better holistic sense of it. Another interesting use of magic is how the trees in the Holt Forest, Citadel trees, have a sort of communal memory, think of a combination of Dune’s genetic memory and the Wood Wide Web.
The two main characters are mostly engaging both singly and individually. Rylan’s difficulty in being between two worlds, his desire to fit into his family, his connections with dragons, and his clash between his hatred of the Empire and needing to act so as to save the Empire are all compelling stories. That said, while the situation of his family was tense, I would have liked more on his emotional interactions/relations with them, as those felt a bit too stock— bullying brother, nice sister, cold father.
Lorelei’s story, meanwhile, offers a bit of police procedural/noir to the mix, and it’s hard not to root for her due to her determination, sense of duty, and desire to do what is right even in the face of some harsh consequences. Her work (and life) is further complicated by some agoraphobia, though while the issue is raised several times it never felt fully integrated or pervasive enough.
The other characters fare less well I’d say, more one-dimensional and/or one-note, and with several of them involved in plot lines that are pretty clearly signposted and offer less of the complexity of the storylines surrounding the two main characters. I think too that getting all of their POV’s right at the start hurt the pacing of the narrative somewhat as we were swishing so often. I’m not even sure all of these characters needed a their own POV and wouldn’t have minded some winnowing so we could spend more time exploring the characters whose story had some rich potential that wasn’t quite met in the novel as is. Rhiannon especially felt like she was given some short shrift, with her plotline probably the most emotionally and morally fraught and ripe for a deeper, longer dive.
With all of that, The Dragons of Deepwood Fen was a bit of a mixed bag for me, with the positives being the two main characters, the themes, and the general world-building, and the more problematic elements being pacing, secondary characters, and a lack of enough depth in some areas. In some ways, though, this first book feels more of a set-up for what is to follow, so based on that, and how much I enjoyed Beaulieu’s other work, I’m expecting a stronger book two.