Book Reviews

A Dragon, a Heist, and a Lot of Dangerous Secrets: LR Lam’s Dragonfall

Lam’s previous speculative novels have appeared under the name Laura Lam, most recently including the space opera two-part series Seven Devils and Seven Mercies, co-written with Elizabeth May. “Dragon Fall” marks Lin’s first full-length return to fantasy since 2017’s “The Masquerade.” But, as usual, Lin’s work once again straddles subgenres: “Dragon Fall” is the first book in the “Dragon Scale” trilogy, straddling the line between thriller and epic novel and playing some interesting roles in terms of narrative and point of view. Skillfully done.

Arcady Dalca is an ambitious young man from the city of Vatra in the country of Rock. He wants to go to college, get into the highest echelons of Rogia’s government, and prove that his grandfather didn’t cause the devastating plague he’s blamed for. But as the grandson of the Plaguebringer, in a country where people identify by the magical sigil they were given at birth, Arkady couldn’t do it in any aboveboard way. Until now, his life has been that of a thief and an outcast, but he has cast a dangerous spell linking himself to another seal in an attempt to conceal his identity in order to pull off a high-stakes deception – stealing the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the gods of Waterland – and using the proceeds to pursue his true goals.

Unfortunately, his dangerous magic has unintended effects.

Efron Ashpaw is a dragon. He was a young man of his kind, son of the Dragon Queen, brother of the Dragon Queen’s heir, and possibly the last male dragon. Male dragons are seers, expected to foretell and help guide their people on the right path of destiny, but Efron has no vision, and his home island of Verselene is suffering from severe ecological decline. Soon, an eruption of a nearby volcano could render it completely uninhabitable and wipe out the dragons entirely. When Efron reads a prophecy that he thinks tells him what he should do, he flies across the rift between the two worlds and ends up trapped in Vatra, in a weakened, humanoid form with an incomplete connection to Arkady, and confronted with confusing, infuriating human culture.

You see, a long time ago, humans and dragons lived in the same world. But according to the memories of the Dragon Clan, they were betrayed and exiled for no reason. At the same time, humans have all but forgotten that dragons are real. Instead, in Locke, they worship dragons as gods, the source of their magic, but know nothing of the history of humans and dragons.

If Efron uses the power of Arcadian magic on the holy day known as the Feast of the Flowers to tear the veil between worlds and guide them through, he can save his people. In order to do this, however, he has to get Arkady to trust him – and better yet, love him – and then kill them all, exchanging the life of one man for the life of his whole nation. This should be an easy transaction.

But things are never that simple. As Efron spends time with Arkady, learning from him and getting to know him, Efron finds himself emotionally charged as they plan Arkady’s daring heist together. As much as he tries to encourage Arkady to develop feelings for him, his own feelings develop, which is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Arkady didn’t even know he was a dragon, let alone that he probably needed Arkady to die in order to save his people.

The novel’s most straightforward descriptions give the impression that it follows the conventions of an enemy-lovers romance within an epic framework. This is a bit misleading: Dragonfall‘s focus on the epic is as strong, if not stronger, than its focus on the personal, and while little has changed in either, readers primarily interested in romantic stories may find this novel did something they didn’t expect.

As it turns out, the veil that separates Efron’s world from Arkady’s is no simple obstacle. Dangerous, hostile things inhabit it, and the relics of the Elder Dragons have given certain humans the power to close the tears that let these dangers pass. Veil tearing has become more frequent and more dangerous in recent years. The reader learns this through the eyes of Thorin, acolyte to the priests of Vatra, a secret agent (and trained as an assassin) for the High Priest of Vatra, Magnis, who keeps an iron grip on his power control and dispatches agents to turn off tearing. In particularly critical cases, he goes in person. Thorin is an interesting character: a trained assassin who doesn’t want to kill, a young woman who doesn’t realize (though the narrative admits) that while Magnis raised and cared for her to a certain extent, their relationship was fundamentally unhealthy. He was an abusive substitute parent to her, and the narrative suggests that his treatment of her was deliberately manipulative tostrategically increase her emotional dependence and loyalty to him.

Magnis also wants the relic Arkady plans to steal. It’s his job to prevent the consequences of a massive tear in the veil that Dragon Crossing represents. His and Thorin’s orders, Arkady’s orders, and Efron’s orders, are all on a collision course.

It’s been one hell of a ride.

Lin also chose an interesting way to tell the story. Arkady’s narration is partly told in the first person from his point of view. Efron’s narration is also in the first person, but it’s as if he’s speaking directly to Arkady.

“It’s easy to kill you, especially if I’m still in dragon form. Simply with a swipe of the paw. There was a sound of teeth.”

Meanwhile, Thorin’s story is partially told in the third person, with the other two characters’ perspectives briefly appearing, as is the case.

Lin has written a vivid, energetic fantasy, mixing and matching different subgenres to create a compelling and absorbing novel. Their world-building is interesting and layered, with hints of other unrevealed secrets, and their characters are compelling. This is a very interesting book, and I look forward to the next installment.

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