Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter
I would like to thank Nazia from orbit for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Orbit
Published - Out Now
Price - £16.99 Hardback
The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war, and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women have the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.
Young gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early and settle down to marriage, children and land. Only he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.
Energy in a novel is something we often forget to talk about. A horror stay is building tension often to a wild climax as is a romance. Space battles are all neon lights shining in the dark and in epic fantasy you can get the operatic acts of epic build ups leading to crescendos. Into this comes a new start to a series and Evan Winters has given me one of the most energetic reads that really propels me into a young man’s tale of revenge and a wider story of an empire on its knees.
The core character is Tau who is the son of a respected military commander to some local nobles on the fringes of the Omehi land. The Omehi arrived two hundred years ago and fought back the native inhabitants known as the Hedeni. The Omehi however have a number of magical peers they can call down upon such as The Gifted who can banish an attacker’s soul briefly to the demonic underworld who weaken the soul and mind of the attackers; the Ingoyama who with a bonded Enrager can transform into an huge more powerful warrior that can destroy a single troupe on their own and finally when all else fails the truly Gifted can call upon a dragon to wreck the invaders with fire. Despite all this the Hedeni have not given up their battle to take back their own ;lands but for Tau a Lesser in a world of Nobles and higher castes his best bet would be to win a trial and gain some military power – failure would put him in the front-line to die at the pleasure of his elders and betters. Tau while a decent and brave fighter after his very first battle and his first kill soon decide he wants no more. Unfortunately, a Noble causes Tau to lose his temper in a practise fight which is unheard of. The crueller visiting lords decide to kill Tau’s father to show all the others a lesson about who is in charge and the kind young man we meet at the start soon becomes crazed by revenge and his only route to fight his father’s killers is to get into the heart of the Omehi army itself.
A simple impulsive desire not to lose to a Noble however leads to a heart-breaking change and we see Tau slowly start to lose his moral compass through shame and guilt. Now every moment of his life is about revenge against the four men he blames for his father’s death. This means Tau must join the army; fight in trials and learn to be the best there is to beat some of the most powerful people in the land. That determination to win against bigger and stronger fighters even while injured gets the competent Tau noted by a trainer Jayyed who himself has a plan for addressing the imbalances between nobles and lesser. Tau trains even harder and becomes a fierce warrior scaring not just his enemies but sometimes his friends and loved ones. Just though when he thinks he can strike revenge he gets sucked into the world of politics as a new queen; her government and the Hedeni start to go into battle with each other.
I found this a really immersive story and Tau is a huge factor into that accomplishment. The early version of Tau is a young, witty but decent guy who really just wants to settle down with his potential lover Zuri and earnt eh respect of his friend Jabari the local noble who respects his friend even though he is felt to be a Lesser. His change into the ultra-focused almost spartan Tau who just wants to win battles and be the best fighter there is disconcerting, but Winter still adds a human dimension. His shyness around Zuri who he meets again in the capital; his decency towards his fellow fighters who all respect him, and this means we have someone who is on the cusp of either becoming a true hero or someone who is lost to bloodlust.
The one issue some readers will have is there are a lot of practise fights from when Tau leaves his home and when the real battles commence. Those wanting a wider exploration of the world of the Omehi need to wait however for me they really work as there is a huge narrative e drive Winter builds into each fight. This can be character driven – if Tau ever loses, he is out of the tournament, so the odds are always high. They can be technical, so we get battles with shields, a person learning to use two swords or even their other arm to fight and then there is the personal. Taking on the person who has caused you all this pain. That ever-increasing scale becomes crucially vital to the plot and Winter has a frantic eye for action but clearly explains the moves and importantly the tactics being used to win one on one or squad versus squad.
Character is equally key here and while Tau is more towards the strong silent type the wider troop, he travels in remind me a little of the three musketeers – good fighters but also funny, clever, cheeky and tortured nobles. They’re a good balance to Tau poking fun at his attitudes and perhaps reminding him there is more to life than war. I was pleased that its not clear cut that the Omehi are the righteous side here too in this endless war. Its clear they colonised the land themselves and their society with its emphasis on Nobles is stagnating and cruel. The Hedeni for example are much happier for women and men to fight together and their cause is not shown to be one sided. This does set up some intriguing directions for the series to come and I’m not yet sure who is the right side to support at all.
I think Winter has one of the most interesting epic fantasy debuts out this year so far. A series inspired by Xhosa history and myth is already a refreshing change in fantasy, but I really liked Tau’s journey and how he tries to keep his humanity despite all that is thrown at him. My feeling is we are only just exploring the world that Winter has created, and I will definitely be looking forward to more from him in future years. A fantastic start if you enjoy the world of Anna Stephens or Pierce Brown.