Blood of an Exile (2019): Brian Naslund

★★★½

The Dragons of Terra: Book 1

Silas Bershad is an exile, condemned by his king to the life of an itinerant dragon-slayer. Marked with the blue bars of his trade on his cheek, and with his arm covered in tattoos recording the beasts he has killed, he is an object of fascination and fable to those he meets. Most dragon-slayers don’t last long, but Bershad – known popularly as the Flawless – has outlived sixty-five dragons and has no plans to stop there. The alternative is death on the king’s command and Bershad doesn’t fancy giving him the satisfaction. But when he’s summoned to the capital, Floodhaven, Bershad must confront the life he gave up fourteen years ago and decide whether his hatred for King Hertzog will stand in the way of accepting a new mission beyond the kingdom’s borders. If he succeeds, he will win his liberty and regain his noble status. And besides, there’s more at stake than simple politics. While this first instalment in Naslund’s fantasy series is focused on setting out the pieces – and ends rather abruptly – it does offer rich and intricate scene-setting, with an unusual emphasis on the ecosystems of this fantasy world.

Bershad’s return to Floodhaven offers him the chance for revenge – vengeance, at last, against the king who tricked him into treason and then condemned him to an unjust exile. Hertzog Malgrave might now be offering him freedom as the reward for the new mission, but Bershad has bitter experience of the king’s trustworthiness (‘every offer from King Hertzog came with strings, some of which could be tied around your throat and pulled‘). It would be so, so easy to draw a sword and end this wretched story there and then. But wisdom prevails: wisdom, and the influence of the princess Ashlyn, who once meant a great deal to Bershad and who remains far more thoughtful and pragmatic than her father Hertzog. Bershad realises that his public mission – to rescue Ashlyn’s younger sister Kira, recently kidnapped by an envoy from the enemy kingdom of Balaria – is only part of the story. He also has another, far more deadly task, one which has a significance that Bershad can’t yet fully understand. But Ashlyn is behind it – bright, clever, subtle Ashlyn, who has spent her life studying dragons (a passion which Bershad once shared, before he was condemned to spend his life killing them instead) – and Bershad realises that he still wants to see what might come of a future shaped by Ashlyn’s mind.

Some distance from Floodhaven, in a region of jungles and rainforests, the apprentice alchemist Jolan finds himself unexpectedly homeless. Without a master or a roof over his head, Jolan decides instead to head for the dragon warrens he’s always heard about, hoping to find a rich source of ingredients for his work, and to satisfy his curiosity about dragons in general. On his way, he falls into company with a stranger, a man named Garret, who has a dragon’s tooth lodged in his arm and a nasty habit of being around when trouble strikes. As the capital readies for war, and the provincial lords are called to raise their levies, Jolan finds himself in a region fraught with rivalries, where a series of unexpected deaths threaten to throw the country into instability. Politics are on the brink of collapse, but Jolan – like few other people, one of them Ashlyn – understands that this might not be the main threat to their country of Almira. In this modest backwater country, people are already beginning to suffer from strange plagues and sickness, which signal something far more dangerous: the balance of nature being knocked out of line.

I don’t remember reading any other fantasy which places so much weight on the importance of nature. Naslund chooses two prominent characters, a trainee alchemist and a scholarly princess, who are deeply engaged in understanding the balance of the natural world, and who can see the problems that will arise if certain ambitions – such as the wholesale destruction of dragons – are indulged. He also gives his hero a striking regenerative power which may or may not be connected to the properties of healing moss, which is itself affected by where it grows. On several occasions he spends time explaining the symbiotic balance of his ecosystems and drawing attention to the way that hunting, dragon-slaying and all other manner of standard fantasy activities threaten the environment. It’s an unexpectedly green message to set alongside the more conventional quest narrative that sets Bershad on the path to adventure and danger in the lands controlled by the Balarian Empire. I enjoyed it, because it gave a sense of how things actually work in this world – I suppose it gave me the same sense of satisfaction that I get from reading K.J. Parker’s novels about supply lines and engineering.

And it also shows that Naslund has really thought hard about creating a world that has an intrinsic unity: dragons aren’t just here because it’s a fantasy and ‘we should have dragons’; they’re here because they’re creatures that have evolved to occupy a particular place in the chain of predators and prey, and which threaten to disrupt the system if they’re culled. This sits more widely against a culture, especially in remoter parts, which has an almost shamanic relationship with animals and natural forces. People from all classes make mud totems to gain the favour of the gods, while soldiers wear wooden masks crafted in the shape of their lord’s chosen animal. This kind of anthropological detail gives Naslund’s kingdom of Almira a very different feel from standard fantasies. The semi-tropical climate and the presence of rainforests and jaguars suggest that we’re somewhere more like Central America than Western Europe (the usual inspiration for fantasy worlds). All in all, it makes for excitingly original world-building.

There are some weaknesses: once the book gets going, it seems to meander along for a while and then work up speed, only to end very abruptly. I found it odd that Jolan was worked up as a fairly significant character, but that he didn’t have much to do afterwards except act as a kind of narrator for Garret’s actions. And Bershad never quite escaped the cliche of ‘noble yet taciturn man brutalised through no fault of his own’ – he frequently reminded me of Geralt of Rivia, but without the sense of humour. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in finding out what happens to him. I like tormented noble heroes, and although Bershad isn’t up there with the best of them, he fits the theme. (I found the signalling of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ to be somewhat heavy-handed, considering the book’s environmental interests: Bershad’s noble family traditionally revered the creatures of the jungle which they ruled; the villains, equally significantly, parade around in flayed jaguar cloaks.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the character I found most satisfying was Ashlyn: a fantasy princess who spends most of her time engaged in scientific experiments, who is politically astute, and who has a convincingly complex relationship with her difficult father.

Now, something needs to be said here. I’ve just (after writing the rest of this review) discovered that the galley I was sent only contains the first half of the book. This wasn’t made clear at any point, so obviously I’ve judged the book as if what I’ve read was a complete novel. No doubt this explains the abrupt ending and why the plot felt weirdly unbalanced. I feel tricked by this, especially as lots of good stuff (and an introduction to a whole other civilisation) seems to happen in the second half. But at present, having devoted a lot of time to this in good faith in order to produce a review, I don’t really feel like buying the whole book at full price just to read the rest. Maybe those of you who’ve been fortunate enough to read the whole thing can convince me otherwise…

Buy the (whole) book

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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