Monday, February 04, 2013

Book Review: Annals of Drakis Book 3: Blood of the Emperor by Tracy Hickman

Drakis has been through a lot in a short amount of time. Despite being a slave, he was a respected warrior with friends and a devoted lover. Then the truth came, and his lover went insane, his home was destroyed, and he was forced to set North, not only to survive, but to fulfill an insane prophecy thrust upon him. As he was herded forward, destined to destroy the evil Rhonas Empire or die at their hands, he faced treachery within the ranks of the dragons that had professed to join his cause. Now, he is weary of battle, having faced the death of his beloved Mala- but the world won’t let him leave. The stakes are his own thousands of followers and the tyranny of the Rhonas Elves- not to mention all of the other characters we’ve followed along the Annals of Drakis. Is Blood of the Emperor a fitting conclusion, and does the time we’ve invested in this series pay off?

The novel begins with Drakis’s party swooping in atop dragons to bring the Army assembled in Drakis’s name victory in a battle against the elves. The Army of the Prophet has been traveling, fighting all the while but mostly fighting to keep themselves from being exterminated by the far more numerous and better trained Legions of Rhonas. With the help of the dragons, the Army of the Prophet quickly wins the battle, establishing Drakis as their figurehead and Commander in Chief. Soen Tjen-rei, the Iblisi Inquisitor who set out first to bring Drakis back to the Empire, and then to use Drakis and his Army as a way of returning to power after being betrayed by Iblisi Keeper Ch’drei, is now a member of the Army and an important source of knowledge on Rhonas tactics.

From here, the already complicated story gets infinitely more complicated. We’re treated to a brief glimpse at the politics of the refugees- and brief as it is, it’s entirely possibly too much. I’m not really sure whether I’m saying anything about the wisdom of including it when I say that, more the fact that any glimpse into the political workings of this camp gives you a glimpse into the headache that anyone trying to lead this group must feel on a constant basis. It’s no wonder why Drakis’s most important goal throughout this entire novel is not conquest or victory, but to avoid this type of internal squabbling.

Drakis sends his inner circle out, both to rally support for their cause, and on a secret mission to convince those who would rebel against the Elves to travel North rather than to join them in battle in the South. This leads to some padding as the cumbersome and difficult to write Lyric- a human who was possessed by the spirits of the stories she told after her mind broke during the initial failing of the Devotions that caused the slave revolt- sacrifices herself in a scene that leads absolutely nowhere and causes nobody to ask any questions later on.

On a more relevant note, Jugar- Dwarven Jester, lover of his own voice, and sorcerer of Aer magic- and Ethis- whom we’ve come to learn is one of the chosen of the Queen in Exile of the mysterious Chimerian kingdom- each return home to their respective kingdoms. While Ethis works out an arrangement to the mutual benefit of both the Army of the Prophet, Jugar reveals himself to be Aerkan, the last King of the Dwarves, on a crusade to both destroy Aether magic- the magic used by both humans and elves, which is drawn more forcefully from the ground than Aer and thus seen as unnatural by the dwarves- and to crush all other races after the war with Rhonas is over. Jugar- that is to say, King Aerkan- blames the lack of dedication of the other races for Rhonas’s ultimate victory, the dwarves being the last race to defy them and meeting what appeared to be their ultimate end in Song of the Dragon.

This being the third novel of the series, it’s only natural that if I continue to explain everything at this rate, we’ll be here all day. When it comes to the early chapters of Blood of the Emperor, though, these are the highlights. We see a change in dynamics as Jugar transforms from the well-meaning yet overbearing mentor to a secret villain, sabotaging the attempts of his human counterpart, the Aether Sorcerer Braun, to take control of Aether Wells along their path and even resulting in both Braun’s death and the destruction of a city in what by all accounts was the most bloody, inhumane manner possible as it both physically and mentally fell apart. Around the same time, Soen falls off the map of the Army, having been left behind as soon as his uncertain loyalties became a liability. Apparently, bad times have taught Soen more about morals than he ever wishes to know as a successful Iblisi, and he passes that information on to a fellow Inquisitor who captures him and witnesses her own Devotions- think of Devotions as a spell to keep subjects of Rhonas thinking the way the Emperor wishes them to think- crumble, leaving her with a moral crisis.

I don’t want to go too far into these plots, because the novel did keep me in suspense and is not entirely without my recommendation. Still, I find it’s important to talk about the resolution, because in a lot of ways, there really aren’t any. Sure, Drakis finds a resolution, and the almost-romance that this book seems to be shipping between him and Urulani resolves, but a lot of the implications of decisions that are made go completely nowhere. Soen and Jugar are worthwhile examples, because I’ve already hinted at their character arcs. Soen transforms from a neutral, pragmatic character with no real interest in moral absolutes into a character who manages to twist the entire plot around his desires and fool essentially everyone he speaks to, and not once do we get a Soen point of view in this novel. Whether he’s truly interested in utopia- and why- or if he’s continuing to look out for his own needs is entirely ambiguous- rather, ambiguous in the hand-wavy way that indicates “all is well” unless someone chooses to write a sequel, in which case it’s the opposite. Jugar devotes his entire Kingdom to a course of action, but when his story resolves, his Kingdom seems left with no option but to flounder out of site.

When it comes to the main plot of the story, Tracy Hickman delivers with action, emotionally charged scenes, and suspense, but it seems like outside of the main target she loses focus. It’s strange in that we’re very clearly following the same story threads that were set up in Song of the Dragon, but where in Song of the Dragon we were entranced by a new universe filled with new species and new characters, here, we’re living with the same characters that we’ve known for three novels. Some reveal new dimensions, like the mysterious Jugar, while most gain no new characterization. Between the three main elven antagonists- the Emperor, Keeper Ch’drei, and Sjei (the elven woman who routinely raped Drakis before he was released from his Devotions)- not one gets a suitable climactic confrontation, and only one gets anything I could consider a character resolution. In fact, throughout the trilogy, the Emperor barely speaks and not once gives his thoughts on something. The Emperor, up through his final scene, is not a character. He is set dressing, he is background, he is even a MacGuffin, but he is never a character. The woman whom the army opposing Drakis is named after never meets Drakis during the main course of the novel, and by the time she does, he (ironically or not) claims no knowledge of who she is. This is not dramatic tension, and this is not a satisfying end to a story.

There is a battle at the end, yes. There is an adventure at the end of the novel that leads to the conclusion. But because of the way it is presented, much of the tension is robbed from it. By about three quarters through the novel, virtually everybody in the novel’s universe is dead certain on the fact that the Empire is going to fall, and by the time the actual battle comes around, it’s essentially over in the space between chapters.

Despite the disappointing ending, Annals of Drakis is more or less a satisfying fantasy story. The universe is pretty unique, and it keeps you on your toes as you try to understand the rules of this world and the roles of the various factions within it. While I can’t bring the full force of my enthusiasm behind reading this series, I also can’t say that I regret having read it or wouldn’t recommend a friend do the same. If you’ve got enough time on your hands to read through a decent length trilogy and love fantasy novels, give this trilogy a try and you should have a decent time.

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