Review: The Dragon Apocalypse, Cinder

It’s been many long years of waiting, but I’ve finally gotten my hands on the fourth and final book of James Maxey’s wildly original Dragon Apocalypse series, Cinder.

Cover art for Cinder, book four of the Dragon Apocalypse series by James MaxeyThis is a series with a strange history. The first book, Greatshadow, is easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read, but while the following volumes still had many strengths, the truth is it’s pretty much been downhill from there. That sounds harsher than I mean it to, but the fact remains that while I’ve enjoyed each book, I’ve enjoyed each one less than the previous.

Part of this is due to the strange structure of the series. Halfway through, the Dragon Apocalypse changed its main character and its entire writing style. It was a jarring transition I still haven’t fully adjusted to.

It also seems there has been some real world turbulence for the series. I’m not clear on what exactly the story is, but Cinder seemed to take an awfully long time to make it to market, and it’s now under a different publisher than the previous books.

The change in publishers definitely wasn’t an upgrade, either, as the quality of the product has taken a hit. I have never seen a professional novel with anywhere near this many typos.

But whatever the journey, Cinder is finally here now.

It is a book of inconsistent quality. Once again, there’s been a shake-up of perspective. Now the novel’s perspective shifts regularly between the series’ large cast of characters, and while many of these characters are familiar, a lot of attention is spent on a new character, the book’s namesake, Cinder.

Cinder is the daughter of Stagger and Infidel. Conceived in the spirit realm, she has skin as black as midnight and the ability to shift between the physical and abstract realms at will.

Cinder is one of my main problems with the book, because I find her fairly dull in comparison to most of the other characters. This is the same problem I had with Sorrow in the last book, though ironically by now Sorrow has grown on me and I would have liked to have seen her get more attention this time.

It should also be noted that the long gap between Cinder and the previous book left my memory of the series to date rather atrophied, and that also probably hindered my enjoyment of the story. In retrospect I should have reread the rest of the series first, but my impatience got the better of me, and I spent the first few chapters mostly trying to remember who everyone was and what was going on.

However, my biggest problem with Cinder is that it feels very, very rushed. In this fourth and final installment, the Dragon Apocalypse has come at last, the primal dragons of ice and storm uniting to destroy the world of humanity and plunge the world into an eternal blizzard.

Cinder deals with spectacular, earth-shattering events. It has a massive cast of characters whose stories need closure. And it tries to deal with all this in less than 300 pages. There’s just not enough time to give everyone and everything its due.

If ever there was a series that should have been spread out to ten or so books, this was it. The Dragon Apocalypse boasts one of the most brilliantly colourful and wildly inventive settings in all of fantasy, with no shortage of bizarre and awe-inspiring places, creatures, characters, and concepts. Four short books simply isn’t enough to do justice to the world or its story.

Still, I don’t like dumping on this book so much. Partly this is because I have spent some time speaking with James Maxey in the past (briefly, several years ago, over email), and I found him to be very humble and gracious and an all around good guy.

And partly there is still a fair bit to appreciate in Cinder. As mentioned above, the setting of the Dragon Apocalypse still offers no shortage of wonders. I love the concept of the primal dragons, immortal beings whose souls have fused with the fundamental aspects of the natural world, and Cinder more so than any of its predecessors shows off the terrible grandeur of the primal dragons.

There are also still many great characters in the story, even if Cinder herself didn’t blow me away. It was great to see Infidel back in action, even if her role was relatively small, and I’d happily read an entire series devoted to the adventures of the Romer clan. Seriously, Gale is awesome; can we get a book that’s all about her?

Cover art for the complete Dragon Apocalypse collection by James MaxeyAnd I have to say that I did really like how it ended. Without spoiling anything, I think there’s a beautiful poetry to the final conclusion of Stagger and Infidel’s long, bizarre story.

In the end, it does remain true that every Dragon Apocalypse book is less enjoyable than the previous, but it started from such lofty heights that even after four books, the end result is not bad.

Overall rating: 7/10

I do want to say again that despite whatever flaws the series might have developed after, Greatshadow is one of the best books I’ve ever read and something that is absolutely worth your time. It’s a hilarious, heartfelt, and brilliantly strange story that I can guarantee is not like anything you’ve read before.

On Romance and Horror

Romance and horror are two genres of storytelling that I would traditionally have told you I don’t like. They just don’t appeal to me. But lately I’ve been thinking that’s not quite right.

A piece of horror-themed artworkAs I’ve grown older and more experienced, I’ve come to the conclusion that romance and horror are both genres that I actually enjoy quite a lot. It’s just that my idea of what makes for a good romance or a good horror story are very different from mainstream society.

There’s very little romance or horror that fits my unusual ideals for how they should be executed, and it took me a long time to find any at all. Once I did, I realized I could love them as much as an other style of story. It’s not the genres themselves that bother me, but merely how they tend to be executed.

I thought it’d be interesting to do a post examining what it takes for me to enjoy these genres.

Horror:

With horror, I enjoy a much subtler touch than you normally see in mainstream culture. Most horror that I’ve experienced relies on grotesque monsters, buckets of gore, jump scares, or a combination of the above.

Those all work, but they’re cheap. They’re the path of least resistance. They’re lazy. What I crave is more ambient, more about thought and feeling. To give you an idea what I mean, my favourite literary work of horror is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven:

Not ravens, but close enoughAnd the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

 

I could also draw attention to The Secret World, a game I truly adore despite my normally lukewarm (at best) feelings toward horror. That game has its horrid monsters, its jump scares, and its gorey scenes, but it doesn’t use those things as crutches. TSW’s horror is at its finest not when the Wendigo jumps out at you in the parking garage, but while standing in the woods outside Kingsmouth, looking up at the stars and feeling alone in a hostile universe, or amidst the bright lights and cheery colours of Fear Nothing, reading the anguished words of a tortured child you came too late to save.

With horror, I’m not really looking to be scared. I don’t particularly enjoy fear. It’s already an emotion I have entirely too much acquaintance with.

But what I do like is being unnerved. Creeped out. There’s a certain strange allure to being nudged out of your comfort zone, to being reminded that the universe can be a strange and cruel place.

I’ve been reflecting lately on how fantasy, my favourite genre, and horror are closely related. Fantasy says, “Anything is possible, and that’s awesome.” Horror says, “Anything is possible, and that’s terrifying.”

My Dragon under the moonlight in Blue MountainThe horror that I enjoy isn’t about making you jump in your seat or squeal in terror. It’s about mystery and ambiance. It’s about reflecting on how much of the universe we still don’t understand, about hearkening back to when I was a child and I looked into the darkness and wondered what was out there, not entirely sure I wanted the answer.

Romance:

My issues with romance as it is usually presented are more complex.

I’ll grant that a lot of it is just that a great deal of romance is, in my opinion, poorly written. It seems to me as if the golden rule of “show, don’t tell” is almost invariably thrown out where romance is concerned. In literature, it always seems to devolve into lengthy, tedious exposition on the depth and power of the character’s feelings, and romance in other mediums is rarely less hamfisted.

I would really like to see romance focus more on the characters’ actions, and action in general. Don’t just tell me how much they love each other. Show me how they’ll go to Hell and back for each other. Show me how their love strengthens them and makes them better people.

A fantasy romance-themed wallpaperI’ve talked before about how King and Lionheart by Of Monsters and Men is one of my favourite songs. To me, it’s an exemplar for a better, more dramatic style of romance.

Howling ghosts – they reappear
In mountains that are stacked with fear
But you’re a king, and I’m a lionheart.
And in the sea that’s painted black,
Creatures lurk below the deck
But you’re a king, and I’m a lionheart.

And as the world comes to an end
I’ll be here to hold your hand
Cause you’re my king, and I’m your lionheart.

It is, to my interpretation, all about the strength that one draws from love. About what one can face with their love at their side.

As I’m putting the finishing touches on this post, I’ve just finished rewatching Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Liz’s decision to save Hellboy even at the cost of everything is, to me, a great example of romance done right. It’s powerful, but not overwrought. It’s hard to defend her decision, but also hard to imagine making any other choice in her place.

Perhaps it’s just because I’m a guy. I have a guy’s vision of what romance should be — involving swords and shouting and epic adventure.

All the feelsAnother major complaint, which I’ve mentioned before, is how romances tend to focus almost exclusively on the beginning of relationships. There are some compelling reasons for this, but it’s still incredibly myopic, and it’s one of the main reasons that romance tends to be arguably the most formulaic style of fiction in existence. There’s only so much variation you can put on infatuation and the honeymoon phase.

I would really like to see more time spent on mature relationships. What happens after the couple rides off into the sunset? Let’s see relationships grow and evolve over time. Let’s see how they shape and change the characters. Let’s see the challenges in each relationship and how the characters overcome them.

I’ve really been enjoying Liv and Major’s tribulations on iZombie. These are two people who clearly love each other with all their hearts, yet fate and cruel circumstance are constantly throwing them curveballs and keeping them apart. But they won’t give up on each other. It’s such a refreshing change of pace from the unbelievably stale formula of most fictional romances.

Even when fiction does present challenges in romance, it’s almost invariably in the form of a love triangle. Basically just more infatuation, but now our hero has to choose between two options! Oh, whatever shall they do!

I hate love triangles. All the same tedious “will they/won’t they” you get stuck with in a regular romance, the same milking, but times two, and you usually end up hating the protagonist. And once again, they’re so. Over. Done.

All the feelsAhem, sorry, bit of a tangent, there. My point is that romance lacks variety.

Another angle I’d like to see more of is unrequited love, though it depends on how it’s done. It can easily become overly morose, but it has potential. I’d particularly like to see more of characters who have feelings that simply aren’t returned, and they just have to live with it. That can be an interesting angle for character development. Can be a good way to make a character seem more heroic; if they’re still willing to move Heaven and Earth for their love, even if their love doesn’t love them back, that says more about their character than most anything else.

Fictional romances just seem so incredibly narrow to me. Even in my short and largely empty life, I’ve seen that love is a far more varied and complex thing than fiction tends to paint it as.

…As I’m getting ready to publish this, it occurs to me that I’ve managed to do a passage on romance I like without mentioning James Maxey’s Greatshadow, which is a terrible injustice. It would take me sometime to fully explain all the reasons why it’s my favourite fantasy romance, and this post is long enough already, but I think it’s some combination of humour, unique challenges for the characters’ love, and heartfelt emotion. Regardless, it deserved a mention of some kind.