The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas
Reviewed by Nic Clarke
13 March 2009
I have a love-hate relationship with dragons in fantasy. It seems that for every George R. R. Martin keeping them sensibly in reserve, alien and threatening and controllable only at considerable personal cost, there is an Anne McCaffrey turning them into every Mary-Sue's favourite cuddly accessory. While I confess a certain fondness for the smart, endlessly-curious overgrown cats that are Naomi Novik's dragons (and for their subtext-heavy interaction with their riders), for the most part there is something inherently ridiculous about giant fire-breathing lizards as the contented, if intermittently sarcastic, pets of humanity. I've never quite understood why dragons should be forging psychic bonds with human beings, instead of treating them as the crunchy snack food they clearly are.
The Adamantine Palace takes some welcome steps towards remedying this mystery. Much of Stephen Deas' invented world—socially, politically, architecturally—is built around the careful control of dragons. The various dragon-kings and -queens, whose rivalrous but not outright warring domains are scattered across the land, maintain and display their authority with dragon-mounted troops. The creatures are raised in mountainous eyries—dragon eggs and hatchlings are precious commodities, requiring long years of nurture before they are ready to be bonded to a Rider—and either traded for political gain or put to use for transport and hunting, protection of trade, and harassment of the few small independent towns that survive in territory unclaimed by the kingdoms. (Presumably there are also human settlements in this world that do other things than raise dragons and are not burned-out shells; presumably, too, and the kings and queens have food-producing land holdings in addition to dragon-related infrastructure. But such details play no part in the book; this is a tale of fabulous palaces and unpopulated wastelands only, with nothing much in between the extremes.)
That these dragons are powerful beasts, with enormous and indiscriminate appetites, is made repeatedly clear; so, too, is the exhilaratingly precarious nature of what it is to ride one:
A gout of fire from below her told her they were ready. She let Mistral plunge through the air. Like most dragons, he seemed to like that, dropping like a stone from among the clouds. Every time, she was sure he'd misjudge and they'd smash into the stone, but always, just as she screwed up her face and closed her eyes, there would be a clap of thunder as he spread his wings. The force crushed the air out of her lungs and made the ground quiver. She loved it. (p. 39)
But as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that all is not what it seems; dragons and humans did not always live in this harmony so beneficial to the dragon-monarchs and their subjects, and the peace between the species remains fragile on close inspection. Early on, a young dragon—a "perfect white" named Snow that is to be a lavish wedding gift from Queen Shezira to her new son-in-law Prince Jehal—goes missing in the wilderness, while under escort to its new master. After weeks of frantic searching, a party of Shezira's Riders finally make contact with the prodigal, only to discover that something has gone very wrong; Snow has no Rider, and is no longer biddable. Away from the eyrie and the shadowy doings of its alchemists, Snow is feeling the scales fall from her eyes—and the shackles from her thoughts.
Dragons enslaved by humans by means of mind-controlling potions—that is, dragons that are only held back from unleashing fiery death upon mankind by mind-controlling potions—is an idea with explosive potential. And so, towards the end of the novel, it begins to prove; if there are future volumes, a dragonocalypse must surely be in the offing. It is a pity, then, that by the time Deas begins to explore the implications, the reader has already had to wade through chapter upon (very short) chapter of treacly politicking that is soap-operatically sub-par even by mid-list fantasy standards.
Things get off to an inauspicious start with a risible prologue (part of which is, rather unfortunately, excerpted on the front cover of the proof copy I read). Two characters start getting hot-and-bothered on the back of a dragon in flight, only for one to use the distraction to push the other to their death. Doubtless it was meant to be shocking and arresting, a quick one-two punch—sex! murder!—to introduce our anti-hero. But even ignoring embarrassing lines like "'I can't tell you just how long I've been waiting for this,' she breathed" (p. 5), the scene's impact is squandered by a stripped-down narrative style that opts for the very barest description of actions. Mid-air foreplay and death surely ought to be visceral; there ought to be at least some physical sensation experienced by the viewpoint character as he struggles to pitch his erstwhile partner over the side—but no, apparently not so much as bruised knuckles:
With a sudden jerk, he rammed his head into the small of her back. She staggered and gasped as he rose and drove her forward, punching her as she tried to turn. Once, twice, knocking her forwards. Her arms flailed and then she was gone, off into the sky. Jehal sat back down and pressed himself into the saddle, gripping the dragon with his legs while he strapped himself in. A part of him couldn't believe it had been so easy. (p. 6)
Neither, frankly, can the reader.
This is a problem throughout. The whole thing feels sketchy, regularly crippled by its lack of detail for anything other than the backdrops against which the characters play out their numb, melodramatic interactions, and occasional clumsy infodumps about raising dragons, whose relevance is never entirely clear. Not even in the supposedly riotous, boozy romp of Jehal's wedding night does the reader get a feel for how things, well, feel:
Meteroa nodded. He started to push Jehal back towards the feasting hall. The dancing had stopped. Princess Lystra was standing in the middle of the floor. Everyone was looking at him, but he didn't have time to see any more before a gang of knights launched themselves at him. The next thing he knew, he was whisked off his feet and being carried high in the air. People were shouting and cheering. When he strained his neck to look, he could just about see Princess Lystra being escorted away by two Queens, her mother on one side, Zafir on the other.
He closed his eyes. They weren't even out of the feasting hall before groping hands were already starting to tear his clothes away. (p. 119)
There are a number of interesting character notes. We have Shezira, mother of three daughters, who is wearily, ruthlessly resigned to perpetuating a political and social system that is utterly merciless to women ("Two more days before I leave to buy Prince Jehal with my own daughter's flesh. Although I, above all, understand that is what daughters are for," she thinks at one point [p. 21]). We have the taciturn, wounded support of Shezira's Knight-Marshall, and the hints about her fight to rise in a man's world. We also have the simmering, morally-ambiguous discontent of mercenary cousins Sollos and Kemir, treated with casual, ingrained contempt by the Riders, even when the latter owe the former their lives. As we see more of Deas' world, it is hard to shake the suspicion that, for many of its inhabitants, a dragonocalypse could hardly make life much worse. It is a harsh and injustice-riven society at all levels, in which the poor scratch a living from rocks in between getting burned out by irritable Dragon-Riders, the Scales who faithfully raise dragons are doomed to die of the resulting skin disease, and women are property:
"If Jehal wants to parade you like a whore after he marries you, that's his business. But until then, by all the ancestors, you will deport yourself as Princesses should, or you will never fly from my eyries again. Do you understand me?" (p. 72)
Unfortunately, these things go under-explored—most of the characters get very little screentime—because Deas is apparently more interested in personality-free Jehal and his tedious sex life. Surely this sort of exchange can no longer pass muster as edgy and "adult":
"And you can't wait to unwrap her, can you." For a moment, Jehal was quite sure that Zafir was about to sit up and sulk and pout and become unbearably tedious. Instead, though, she pulled him closer. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to spoil your wedding night. If you have to fuck your doll then so be it, but you'll be thinking of me while you do it." (p. 82)
There is one scene—regarding the relationship between Snow and her Scales (the attendant who reared her)—where the book's starkly undescriptive style plays to its advantage, heightening a daringly callous moment. Probably the standout of the novel, and more shocking than any number of instances of Zafir saying "fuck," it demonstrates what might have been.
Above all, this is a novel with a good idea, but precious little personality to call its own. It floats by on its "shock" factor and swift pace, too concerned with pushing its thin plot forward to spend time on developing some proper ballast: well-rounded characters, interactions with dramatic weight, vivid settings, a sense of a world that is lived in. It is all glitter, in other words, and no grit. A week after finishing it, I am already struggling to recall the twists of the plot. The dragonocalypse, if it happens, will be taking place without me.