Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas

Dragons – where would epic fantasy be without dragons? Portrayals run from cute and cuddly to ferocious and evil to mysterious and metaphorical. In The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) dragons are beasts of burden and weapons of mass destruction upon which the entire civilization is built. But these dragons are enslaved with alchemical potions and far too dangerous to allow freedom.

The Adamantine Palace follows two story arcs with only a bit of overlap. First is the predictable – a dragon is attacked, looses its rider and ends up out of the control of the alchemical drugs used to enslave it. This dragon slowly ‘awakes’ to its true self and sets out to free other dragons as it unleashes vengeance on the humans who enslaved it – of course there are a couple of humans helping the dragon out. The other main story arc is political – the Dragon Kings and Queens play a deadly power game using proxies and pawns with allegiances gained and betrayed.

Words to explain how I felt about The Adamantine Palace include pretty good, OK, adequate, decent and the like. Damning with faint praise – maybe. But in a time when on-line outlets like message boards and blogs (awkwardly peers into the camera) stand up and shout out about the next great thing, where debut novels often gain buzz, even hype, where we can’t wait compare this year’s greatest to last year’s, The Adamantine Palace fails to stand-out. It is a quick, fun political thriller on the same level as a Hollywood blockbuster or modern video game that uses dragons cleverly enough to feel somewhat original. The chapters are short, the pace fast, and the page-count moderate for epic fantasy. But ultimately, it remains unremarkable, in spite of my attempts at the opposite.

Being somewhat fast and furious, The Adamantine Palace suffers a bit in the details. Deas is light on the worldbuilding – which is not (necessarily) a criticism. Much is hinted at, yet little shown – and in the world of epic fantasy, some fans may want more. Unfortunately, the same goes for characterization, which is a criticism. The best are the dragon Snow, who seems like any other talking dragon in fantasy and Prince Jehal, who for all his witty, clever evilness comes across too cartoon-ish. The other characters feel like they were designed to be three dimensional, but can’t hide the fact they are two-dimensional paper reproductions. And the hapless sell-sword Solo, leaves me wishing that Deas hadn’t killed off the interesting one.

Another minor annoyance really has little to do with the book itself. The Adamantine Palace is the first book in a planned trilogy, yet nowhere on the book’s cover, jacket, or description is it even hinted to be part of a series (at least the version I have published by Roc). Now sure, it is epic fantasy with dragons, and therefore must be part of a series, but it feels dishonest that it isn’t mentioned anywhere. Hell, I can’t even find a name for the series. The name of the series is Memory of Flames. While the story arcs of The Adamantine Palace do come to a conclusion, it is clearly an ending within a greater story, an ending not terribly satisfying. The second book, The King of Crags (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), is already out in the UK and will be coming to the US soon and last book of the trilogy, The Order of Scales, is expected sometime in 2011.

One aspect of The Adamantine Palace that I enjoyed is how the enslavement of dragons is portrayed. Dragons are somewhat akin to weapons of mass destruction and the entire society is built on the power of controlling dragons. Yet it is also society’s greatest sin – the enslavement of sentient beings – of course they are sentient beings that would hunt you down, burn you, and then eat you for a snack if they were free. This control of dragons has subtle parallels to aspects of our own world culture and leads to some interesting and troubling questions. As I said, Deas keeps this subtle and does not attempt answers or justifications in The Adamantine Palace, yet I anticipate this thread will continue and increase in the volumes to come.

Stephen Deas’ debut novel, The Adamantine Palace, provides a fast, fun escape into a world with just enough political intrigue and some pretty nasty dragons. However, it’s far from perfect and simply fails to stand-out in the crowded epic fantasy genre. Fans of dragons and the like will love it, younger (and mostly male) fans will also probably enjoy this one quite a bit, the more discerning fantasy fan may want to pass it by. 6.5-7/10


Adam Whitehead said...

I agree with most of the review, but would add the caveat that the second volume is significantly better than the first book, with a stronger focus on worldbuilding (although still not an overwhelming amount), stronger characterisation (Jehal improves a lot) and better pacing.

According to Amazon, the series is called MEMORY OF FLAMES.

Jussi said...

Yeah, "The Memory of Flames" seems to be the official name.


Neth said...

thanks guys - I knew I had seen the name of the series somewhere, but I couldn't track it down again.

SQT said...

I second Adam's sentiments. I liked it, but agree with pretty much all the criticisms. I liked the take on the dragons too and wanted to see how it ended-- given how many books I put down, that's a compliment.

Mad Hatter Review said...

I read it a few weeks back and liked certain parts. The beginning really set the bar high, but the rest ended up being a bit middling in comparison. I'll definitely check out the next volume though.

Fence said...

Boo :( Your first paragraph made me go ooohhh, but then the rest of the review followed :) I guess if I spot it coming in at work I may take a look, I'm a dragon fan, but I won't go out of my way to look for it.


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