Cecelia Holland has a lengthy career behind her, including the acclaimed 1976 science fiction novel Floating Worlds. Most of her works are historical fiction, but Dragon Heart, her latest, marks a return to the SFF genre. It is also the first of her novels I’ve read, and her easy, engaging style is effortlessly readable: impressively clear. I admire it wholeheartedly.
My emotional engagement with Dragon Heart, on the other hand… oh, that’s going to be complicated to explain.
Contains spoilers. Fairly detailed ones, mind.
Any critic likes to be able to categorise. It helps to be able to compare like with like—and arguing about the definitions and category boundaries is fun. It’s why we talk about near-future SF, and milSF, and space opera; epic fantasy and urban fantasy and magic realism. But Dragon Heart is a fantasy novel that defies easy categorisation. It opens in a manner that recalls the likes of Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince, implying that what follows will be a high or epic fantasy focused on a ruling family, whose small kingdom is under pressure from a greater neighbouring power. And in some ways it carries through this implied promise. But it combines this focus with the elements of a fairytale.
Castle Ocean has been ruled by the same family from time out of mind. The castle bends to their will: its walls open passages for them to travel through. But the neighbouring Empire has killed the king of Castle Ocean in battle, and the queen is now required by treaty to marry one of the Emperor’s brothers. She has five children: Luka, the eldest son, the sisters Mervaly and Casea; Jeon, the youngest son; and her youngest daughter Tirza, who has been mute since birth. While the queen delays her marriage by any means at hand, Jeon goes to bring Tirza from the monastery where she has been immured, so that she might attend her mother’s wedding.
But on their return, their ship is attacked by a giant red dragon, and Tirza finds herself washed up in the dragon’s cove. There, she discovers that she can speak to him and be understood, and that she can understand his speech also. She bargains with him for her life, agreeing to tell him stories if he doesn’t eat her. What passes between them… seems like the epitome of an abusive relationship, right down to a wee spot of dragon-on-human sexual harassment, until Tirza climbs the cliff and escapes.
Jeon has survived the shipwreck, and has been looking for her. He brings her back to Castle Ocean, where death and tragedy await for their whole family. The queen kills her husband and her self on her wedding day. Luka leads the townsfolk in a successful uprising against the Empire troops, only to fall to treachery. Mervaly feels she has no choice but to marry one of the remaining imperial lordlings in order to preserve what’s left of her family, but she too is killed. Jeon tries to defeat the imperials by becoming like them. And Tirza, unable to speak, can only act. And hide.
Meanwhile, sites along the coast have been hit by a series of mysterious destructions, which are drawing closer to Castle Ocean all the time. The dragon is coming for Tirza, and when Jeon defeats the imperials by confronting them with the dragon, it is not a victory. And Tirza chooses to leave Jeon behind, alone, and go with the injured dragon wherever he might go.
Dragon Heart is a tragedy. An interesting tragedy, at that. But I can’t bring myself to actually like it. It has great characterisation, compelling prose… but it feels peculiarly old-fashioned, and I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve read this story before, that someone else has already done something really similar. (Patricia McKillip, maybe?) And there’s that pervasive undertone of sexual coercion, of violence and violation, that left me—especially at the conclusion—with a greasy, soiled feeling. Tirza is an amazing character, and deserves better than a controlling bastard of a dragon. Even if he is the only person to whom she can speak and be understood.
I suspect you could say I have very mixed feelings about Dragon Heart. (But I really like the cover design.)
Dragon Heart is available now from Tor Books.