Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Star Trilogy!
This week we start the second volume: The Dragon Token. The book begins immediately after the end of Stronghold, and gets everybody moving and interacting right away. And for the first time, after four books, we get a summary of the previous book. Maybe there were complaints about the total-immersion beginning of Stronghold? Or was there Editorial Concern about new readers starting here? Because really, these books have to be read in order from the beginning. They’re a full-on, cast-of-thousands, plot-bunnies-proliferating-everywhere, big fat Saga.
I remember being all Yawn and Yeesh and Zzzzzz about the massive amounts of exposition and backstory in previous volumes. I like the straight leap in better, and the craft is much more deft: no more long, looooong summaries and summings-up. Though it’s nice to have The Events So Far spelled out for them as wants them.
The Dragon Token—Part One, Chapters 1-5
Here’s What’s Happening: Anyway. Plot summary, then Part One, and here we are: Chapter 1. Short intro, with wings—but not dragons: domestic hawks set free. Pol and Maarken observe, with physical and psychological pain. Then a quick shift to Maarken’s wife Hollis underground, which is not a Sunrunner’s comfort zone.
Immediately we get a rush of names, all female here, all participating in the great escape from Stronghold. One of the many, Jeni, is newly outed as a Sunrunner, and wants to know what happened to her in the last book. This is an occasion for backstory (despite the summary at the beginning) and catching up, followed by a moment of loss: the ancient and indomitable Myrdal is dying at last, but not before she uses Hollis’ Sunrunner (i.e., eidetic) memory to relay all the secrets of all the fortresses in the Desert, and some outside of it. (She’ll get an offstage death, as usual for a loved character, though here it’s set up well enough that it mostly works.)
Shift again, to Chay on the run, with by now familiar reference to how he’s too old for this, stopping to mourn both Stronghold and Rohan. A dragon’s cry puts the cap on it.
Meath carries on the mourning, watching over the sleeping Sioned: traveling through memories of Rohan and Sioned together. Sioned, waking, looks for comfort.
Tobin and Feylin are barely out of Stronghold. Tobin remembers Feylin’s dragon book. Feylin runs back to get it. They don’t know about Rohan, but they suspect about the burning of Stronghold.
Pol and Maarken again, with Rohan’s squires: mourning Stronghold, but not, yet, Rohan. They’re in full and tactical retreat.
Meiglan and her children, who are being alternately cute and annoying. Domestic details are a Rawn trademark, and she is good at them. Then we get the shock as Meiglan realizes she’s High Princess and Sioned isn’t any longer. Meiglan being Meiglan, she can’t cope.
Sioned is composed but absolutely still. Myrdal is dead. Hollis ends up making decisions for everyone, as neither Sioned nor Meiglan is capable.
Meiglan has a moment of autonomy: she wants to go to Skybowl and be with Pol. Sioned shuts her down. They’re going to Feruche. Sioned is weird and a little crazed. Meiglan submits.
Pol is still riding, and exhausted. Azhdeen appears, and gives him the image of Stronghold burning—and Rohan dead. The dragon comforts him.
In Chapter 2, Tallain and Riyan are strategizing, with glee—until Riyan gets word on sunlight that Rohan is dead. Tallain is even more determined to hurt the enemy bad.
The viewpoint shifts to omniscient, reflecting on the funerals of High Princes. Then back to tighter focus: a marital quarrel in Fessenden, with strong political implications, and an extremely rare, if slight, hint of infidelity. (These are villains. They don’t have perfect marriages.)
Meanwhile the news has reached Dragon’s Rest, where Miyon has a fair bit of plotting to do, at least some of which involves murder.
In New Raetia, Rohannon and Arlis discuss various Sunrunners, notably Saumer, whose gift has just been revealed. Then Maarken contacts Rohannon with the news that’s reduced everyone to tears or plotting or both. It causes Rohannon to scream denial.
The tour continues. Prince Velden doesn’t want to make a big thing of mourning Rohan, in case the enemy decides to take advantage. His crippled son, a strong Rohan loyalist, begs vehemently to differ. Here is a smaller version of the Rohan/Pol contention, with Velden doing nothing and Elsen arguing with him. It turns into a lecture a la Rohan and Pol.
Part of the lesson is the reason why the enemy want the desert. It’s dragons, and dragon gold. And—Sunrunners. Specifically, the most powerful of them all: Sioned.
For once it’s not all about Rohan, though it’s been mostly about him so far. He may be dead but he’s by no means gone.
Ostvel and Tilal in the meantime are moving toward Swalekeep, putting pressure on Chiana to “do the smart thing” and not resist. Andrev brings The News, and Ostvel decides to march on Swalekeep.
Alasen at Castle Crag is quietly but momentously reaching a decision. After all these years and all her resistance, she’s going to learn to use the Sunrunner powers she’s been so terrified of. (Remember, she was Andry’s first love, and rejected him because of the magic issue. This is huge.)
The tour goes on and on (and on), listing every place and every person without a Sunrunner to convey the news, and a few that do have Sunrunners. At length we come to Goddess Keep, and to Andry, who is grieving for Rohan, and his Sunrunners, who grieve because of Sioned.
Finally we circle back to Pol, and then to an interwoven set of speeches, first Pol, then Andry, back and forth. Pol believes Rohan’s way has failed. Andry, somewhat ironically and perhaps opportunistically, states that Rohan’s way of peace has to be restored—though he also reflects that the tribute to Rohan is “a sham and a deception,” and anyway Rohan was only a “halfling” Sunrunner.
Andry can’t do anything without getting his ego all over it.
Pol is less ego and more grief. He sees Rohan’s ring on his own hand and dissolves in tears.
In Chapter 3, Chiana is disgusted by a very wet and muddy Vellanti courier bringing The News. She is secretly gleeful to share it with Rialt and Naydra, though she lies about how she got it, and she is not at all secretly gleeful to engage in evil plotting with Rinhoel. Weirdly and ironically, she believes in the power of peace, though not for the reasons Rohan did. “A High Prince who’s constantly at war is a High Prince who’s not being obeyed.”
Chiana, in her way, understands the Evil Overlord version of power. I note parallels with the Warlord later–obedience is a big thing for bad-guy rulers.
Pol tries to get through the wall Sioned has erected around herself, though Meath tries to discourage him. Sioned barely acknowledges him.
Pol is acting like a needy child. Meath is acting like a tired but patient adult.
Kazander is begging Maarken to let him go raiding. Pol decides to join him, over Maarken’s strong objections.
More immaturity, with bonus total lack of consideration for his wife. Pol is clearly disgusted with Meiglan. It is Not a marriage of equals. At all.
The raid starts off delightfully, though Pol is pulled up short when his escort calls him Azhrei, Rohan’s title: Dragon Prince. This is occasion for some internal, childlike wailing, followed by escalating self-doubt at his numerous magical and military failures. He makes himself feel much better by killing as many enemies as he can with Rohan’s sword.
Shift to Firon, where the very young Prince Tirel and his late-teenaged squire are on house arrest while Uncle Yarin usurps his power. This is a rather transparent opportunity for some exposition and backstory, which degenerates into a squabble when Yarin’s heir shows up, culminating in his letting slip The News.
Rialt is dealing with The News in Swalekeep, while Halian’s illegitimate daughters consider details of politics and succession, what with Pol’s lack of a son and his two eventually marriageable daughters, and Rinhoel’s princely ambitions. Rialt snaps and goes after them, and is ejected from the hall.
Chay deals with his grief on the road. There is the obligatory mention of how old he is. Pol returns victorious, looking a great deal like Rohan. (It is always about Rohan. Even now he’s dead.) But he isn’t Rohan.
I get a feeling we’ll be reminded of this early, often, and six times over.
Chay and Pol have a quarrel over Pol’s recklessness and his failure to go to his wife. But mostly his recklessness. And how he isn’t Rohan.
I think the author shares Chay’s feelings. Had to kill her best-beloved character off. Doesn’t have to like it, or his successor, now or ever.
As Chapter 4 begins, Pol is being inconsiderate about wanting speed and not noticing how severe a toll it’s taking on his followers. Meiglan actually speaks up on the side of leaving the noncombatants at Skybowl while he takes the army on to Feruche.
(Her hands are a mess from “reins,” which is the first horse-related wobble I’ve seen in the books. Either she’s riding her hands like nobody’s business, or I don’t know what. I feel sorry for the horse whose mouth she’s grinding to shreds.)
She is not, be it noted, including herself in the Skybowl contingent. Maarken patronizes/praises her dedication to finding and staying with Pol. There is comparison with Sioned and, of course, Rohan.
Family praise of Meiglan is always patronizing. She is obviously not on their level, and they never fail to make sure she knows it. This includes Pol, who so far has not been anything like a supportive husband, let alone a loving one.
Chayla plans to stay at Skybowl with the wounded, but her father forbids it. Tobin needs her. And there is Sioned.
Pol wants to help her, again. Maarken talks him out of it, with strategizing about the war. Pol can’t help himself: he tries to bring Andry into it. They discuss what happened magically at Stronghold. Again, Pol wants to ask Sioned. They all talk him out of it, again. Chayla is extremely wise and well-informed.
She’s fifteen. Pol, at thirty-three, is considerably less mature and in control of himself than she is.
Ruala and Audrite discuss how to deal with the influx of refugees. Ruala has to use wiles and political savvy to clear space for them. (There is reference to how at thirty-seven she’s getting “too old” to resort to sex appeal. This is very Eighties/early Nineties.) There is an extended sequence in which she plays a couple of merchants off each other. The merchants are terribly snobbish and inconsiderate. She reflects that she’s using Rohan’s methods to get what she wants and needs.
It’s always about Rohan.
In the aftermath, Ruala gets major points for manipulating people. And yet again, we’re reminded that Pol is not Rohan. And that he’s not subtle. And that he really doesn’t measure up.
Is anyone supposed to be in favor of Pol at all? There’s this ongoing strain of resentment that he’s not his father. He backs it up by being an ongoing and minimally sympathetic ass.
Rihani wakes from magic-related fever with a muddled memory. Saumer sorts him out. There is reference to, and discussion of, their relative status: Rihani an heir and Saumer a spare.
Rihani is very like Rohan in his attitude toward war and battle. He’ll do it and he’s good at it but he hates it. He’d rather be the one in charge, with other people doing the fighting for him.
As Pol arrives at Skybowl, dragons appear, led by Azhdeen and including a number of “human-owning dragons.” Morwenna’s dragon looks in vain for the lost Sunrunner/sorceress. Pol tells her what happened, and is flattened and physically harmed by the force of her reaction.
The dragons leave, except Sioned’s Elisel, who stays.
Feylin and Meiglan are both terrified of dragons. Both tend and protect Pol. For once Pol appreciates his wife. So does Azhdeen, which is significant.
Ruala calls Pol Azhrei. Pol passes out.
Chapter 5 doesn’t at first make clear whose viewpoint this is. It’s all about being a warrior and keeping discipline and exacting perfect obedience. We learn about a father, a mother, weapons and regalia. We learn about major departures from tradition.
This is obviously the enemy warlord. And now we know why he has no beard. The good guys already figured it out, of course.
He ponders his conquests, successful and not so successful. Stronghold is still burning. He knows who caused that.
He further ponders the pros and cons of absolute obedience.
A meeting of all the highborns in Skybowl, with a babble of gossip. Some of the young men decide to explore Threadsilver Canyon. (Is the name a McCaffrey reference?) They discuss Pol, who is always incapacitated after he’s talked with his dragon. It’s the sires, they decide: they’re stronger and harder to deal with.
They discuss food supplies and family dynamics. Cute kids are cute. Strong women are strong (and frankly badass.) Elisel is still there, seriously worried about Sioned.
The warlord inspects and ponders Stronghold, and Sioned, and his Radzyn stallion. He enters the keep, and is engulfed in Fire.
Chayla is still trying to help Sioned. Meath asks for a knife, and shocks her with the agony of cold steel. Sioned breaks out of her catatonia into wild weeping.
The warlord is still in Stronghold. The Fire has abruptly died. The stallion has escaped. He explores the now dark and deserted castle.
We learn that he has a thing for “her” (i.e. Sioned), and that he was forced by his father to learn the local language, both written and spoken. Clearly this campaign has been long planned.
He finds Rohan’s earring and a lock of Sioned’s hair. Then he hears the cry of a dragon.
Meath explains to Chayla what has happened with Sioned and the Fire at Stronghold. Maarken teases her about Kazander. They are all in awe of Sioned’s power.
The warlord kills Morwenna’s dragon, for political purposes. It is not an easy process. He swears to kill the new Azhrei in the same way.
And I’m Thinking: These have got to be some of the best dragons in the genre. They’re so much stronger than humans, and so clearly alien. There’s nothing tame about them. They’re literally a force of nature.
The humans are zipping along their story lines here. For so sprawling a story with such a huge cast, the pacing is fast and the action seldom lets up. The long murbles and repetitive walks in the woods of the first trilogy are not happening here. It seems as if the bigger the story gets, the tighter it becomes. I’m impressed.
I am less impressed with Pol as the new numero uno male character. The story continues to be All About Rohan, but as far as the living go, he should be it. What he is is almost determinedly unlikable, constantly and unfavorably compared to his father, and while imperfections can make a character interesting, he doesn’t actually have anything but imperfections and fallings-short.
Makes me feel as if we’re supposed to resent him for not being Rohan. I guess he’ll have an arc and evolve and grow up. Or I would hope so. But after three long books, he hasn’t made much progress in that department.
And then of course there’s Sioned, whose center has been yanked out of her. She’s been Rohan’s plus-one since day one of the series, and now she’s very much of a minus-one. That’s going to be poignant and possibly hard to watch, I think.
In another advance in craft, the nameless Warlord isn’t the usual snarky, sneering villain. He’s portrayed in negative terms, of course, he’s a villain—but there are calm and cogent reasons for why he is what he is. He’s the product of his culture and his heredity. He makes sense in his context.
That’s good stuff.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in April. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, two dogs, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.