TLDR: Classic fantasy at its finest, this book provides everything I love from the genre, from a complement of well-developed characters to a stereotypical hero’s journey. The Xhosa-inspired fantasy world is a breath of fresh air when compared to the many, similarly vaguely European fantasy fiction I’ve read in the past, and that’s not even including the world building around society and magic that plays such a huge role in the book. At its essence, the story is about people realising they are more than what the world has told them, class struggle imbued with dragon-magic and demons.
Series: #1 in The Burning
Book: The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter
Synopsis: The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable war for generations. The lucky ones are born gifted: some have the power to call down dragons, others can be magically transformed into bigger, stronger, faster killing machines. Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Tau Tafari wants more than this, but his plans of escape are destroyed when those closest to him are brutally murdered.
Publisher: Orbit Books
(Reading time: 4 mins)
This book, the author’s debut novel and the first of a series, has been on my TBR for some time. I have to admit, I’m glad I read it when I could immediately get my hands on the sequel afterwards, because it is the type of series, I think, that I would happily read from beginning to end without pause, like almost every other series I’ve reviewed TBH… It’s very good! I enjoyed reading it a lot, mostly because it felt familiar — classic. If you are a fantasy fan, and you are searching for a book that will give you characters you are very fond of and a society that intrigues you, this is the book for you.
The MC of this story is Tau. He is the son of the local army leader, and failing to become as excellent a sword master as his father wishes for. Together, they are helping the son of the local nobility prepare for a tournament that will grant him access to the military, thus enriching the noble’s family and his own reputation. My knowledge about Xhosa tribes and traditions isn’t very extensive, but even complete ignorance won’t hinder you from enjoying this story. It’s also important to note this book is inspired by mainly Xhosa culture. Because we have been so bereft of anything other than same-old-society fantasy for a while, we have a tendency to nitpick too closely at books that are based on cultures outside of Western Europe for accuracy that really isn’t applicable – particularly if the author says so!
The world of this story is warlike. Tau’s people have been fighting with the native people of the peninsula they live on ever since they arrived, and the caste-based system creates a specific place for each individual. At the very top is the Queen with the ability to call dragons (sidenote: this society is more matriarchal than patriarchal and it’s done excellently, no ‘men are oppressed’ just… more women in charge), followed by a group of women called the Gifted, who can use magic to attack others or to do something called Enrage, which is giving more power to select Noble fighters, something, it is important to note, that only Nobles can do. Commons like Tau and his father, meanwhile, have no magic, no gifts, and are physically smaller and weaker than the Nobles, and thus, in a society so focused on winning war, not as valuable at all. This is what Tau faces, when he is trying to make himself equal to those who would deny him, told repeatedly that it’s simply fate, simply the way the world works, he simply cannot win.
One of the most interesting things about these social divides is how its constantly reinforced by the magic. You don’t see this a lot in fantasy, where magic is instead a great equaliser. But amongst the Omehi, it seems magic has done the dividing for them. Tau doesn’t consider his social status very much in the beginning of the book, but plot events force him to, when a neighbouring family is driven out simply for angering a noble, when Tau himself is confronted by a Noble and ‘put in his place.’ This is pretty much the main story arc of the book. Though there is no Chosen One narrative here, Tau otherwise has quite a typical hero’s journey, the rags to riches, learning to be the Most Skilled & etc. Yes, it is quite tropey, but it’s written well, and not off-putting at all.
Another thing I enjoyed about this book are the characters. I mean, isn’t that the heart of every story? Tau himself undergoes a great plot development, and IMO the best thing about his character is that even though he is actually frequently kind of an asshole and a bit idiotic (well-intentioned!), you can see through it to identify the good writing. Also, the Love Interest, Zuri, gets to be more than just a love interest, and if I sound shocked, that’s because it doesn’t happen too often in a fantasy story with a male writer and narrator. Zuri has her own path in the plot, but she is also the vessel through which we readers learn about the magic system, which is a great way of giving her agency outside of our Tau-focused perspective. There are quite a few other characters, but the most enjoyable thing about their presence is there is not, largely, a true love/hate divide in how you feel about them. Tau isn’t the only one who gets character development, and that speaks to promising future instalments of the series.
I’m not going to talk about the sequel here because of spoilers, but it carries much the same tone as this book does, i.e. fast-paced writing and further world building. One I’ll be keeping my eye on in the next few years!
Is it worth reading? Yes. Anyone who enjoys fantasy will love this.
Similar to: I hate to say this, but it does kind of remind me of The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett, i.e. the only tolerable book in an otherwise very personally disliked series. This one is a lot better though, clearly!