DRAGON HEART – Cecelia Holland (2015)

Dragon HeartI started this book with the wrong expectations. The title, the text on the dust jacket, the cover art and the Kim Stanley Robinson quote on the cover – “Holland’s vision is constant, and her books keep going deeper. This time, she takes the sea dragon and the castle by the sea and plunges them right into your subconscious.” – all promise a story about, yes indeed, a dragon. That, Dragon Heart doesn’t deliver.

The dragon takes up less than 10% of the page count. How this book is marketed really baffles me. It is a fantasy book for sure, but the emphasis on the dragon might scare away Holland’s regular historical fiction audience, who I’m sure would still enjoy this book. The fantasy elements are subdued and – the dragon aside – only suggestive. One could easily read this as a novel about medieval conquering. I guess Tor’s goal is to expand Holland’s audience, and considers possible historical fiction fans that are scared away by the dragon as collateral damage. Either way, this is not a dragon book.

I’m not sure if I liked Dragon Heart, and I’m not sure whether it were my wrong expectations that shaped this doubt. It is certainly not a bad novel: the book’s plotting is tight, and Holland created an interesting world, filled with interesting characters. Still, at times, something was lacking. I think my main beef with this book is that it felt “small”. The main cast is rather limited, and at times I had the feeling I was reading a modest morality play rather than an epic movie script, for lack of a better metaphor.

The book’s atmosphere is generally one of distrust and paranoia. At the heart of it lies a struggle for power. Yet, the individuals of the 2 factions do not cooperate. This is understandable for those that try to take over the sea castle, as they have internal competition, but it is less so for the defending party. There is a clear lack of communication, and as such this story isn’t realistic: humans are first and foremost a social species. Holland seems to misrepresent the concept of family in this book: judged by their actions the Queen and her children don’t form a unit at all. I guess that this was Holland’s intention, wanting to communicate something to her readers about dysfunctional communication. This didn’t feel real to me. Yet, at times Holland does amaze with sharp observations about humans being bodies. She is a master of describing flesh, blood, urges. When this happened, it floored me again and again.

The story is also about lack of experience. Quite some characters make bad, naïve or stupidly righteous decisions because of their youth or inexperience. This added to the frustration about the characters’ behavior I already felt because of the miscommunications, yet in this case I felt Holland’s psychological choices were justified. It added an interesting layer to the story. As a reader, frustration isn’t necessarily a bad thing to experience.

Dragon Heart is violent, and is clearly rooted in the long tradition of tragedies about succession and revenge. It is strangely surprising and predictable at the same time. After about 1/3rd in, it’s pretty clear how the end will turn out, yet surprises keep happening nonetheless. The story upholds a strong sense of anticipation throughout: the readers are waiting for the dragon, some characters are waiting for a fleet, and both readers and characters are waiting for the inevitable end. To me that end felt like an anticlimax, yet is was strangely fulfilling too.

Some reviewers have called Dragon Heart boring. I can understand where this comes from, the plot is not spectacular for sure, big parts of it are even fairly generic. Yet this book does have an eerie, slithering, strangely refined quality to it, and as a whole it is something fairly unique. Maybe it would be better to approach it is as mythical prose rather than fantasy. In that sense, I can fully understand KSR’s remark about the book plunging stuff in our subconscious. My advice would be to make up your own mind, and give it a try. It’s 286 pages, so it doesn’t take up that much of your time. You might very well like it – just don’t expect an epic dragon story.

Holland’s prose is rather dry, but precise. The fact that she has managed to write a book about which I can’t seem to make up my mind intrigues me. Somewhere in the future, I will definitely try Floating Worlds – her 1976 science fiction novel – and one of her historical novels too.

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