What happens when you mix dragon slaying, political intrigue, and ecological concerns into a fantasy universe? You wind up with Brian Naslund’s debut novel, Blood of an Exile.
Almira is a backward fantasy kingdom riven by powerful nobles who constantly threaten to upend or undo the fragile monarchy. But Princess Ashlyn, heir to the throne, is far more concerned with how the over-hunting of dragons is affecting the landscape. Dragons can certainly cause problems for mankind, but Ashlyn alone seems to notice the bigger problems caused by removing the top predator from the ecosystem.
And then there’s Bershad, flawless Bershad. In Almira, a particularly cruel form of punishment is to condemn prisoners to become roving dragonslayers, until the job inevitably kills them. But this punishment hasn’t quite worked with Bershad. He’s killed dozens of dragons, surviving impossible situations and becoming something rather unusual in a fantasy world—an international celebrity. His many tattoos (one for every kill, and he’s fallen behind) make him unmistakable.
Oh, and Ashlyn’s father? Well, his younger daughter has been kidnapped by an Empire across the ocean, one that has enthusiastically been modernizing itself by harvesting dragons. Someone who is good at killing dragons and surviving against long odds might be just the person to go and rescue a kidnapped princess…
The novel provides several points of view to tell its story. The core story, Bershad’s recruitment and dispatch to effect a rescue is but one of the several strands that the novel follows. We see him do his business, get a first brief look at his abilities, and then he is whisked off into the main plot, set up with his crew, and sent off to his task. This strand of the novel is the most wide-ranging, giving us views of everything from the Almirian back country all the way to the heart of the rival Balarian Empire, the clockwork city of Burz-al-dun. It is perhaps the most traditional of the narratives: a warrior given a mission to rescue the Princess. It’s not spoilery to reveal that this does not go at all according to plan—this is a narrative familiar even as it gets subverted.
Ashlyn’s story is much less traditional. A Crown Princess, seen as a weak heir to a dying King, she starts the narrative in what looks like a weak position. But central to the novel is her strong interest in natural philosophy. I use that phrase instead of “science” explicitly because there are elements of ecology, physical science, magic (maybe, it’s not clear), and practical experiment to Ashlyn’s interests and ethos. She is one of the few people in the novel who actually seems to view dragons as anything other than a threat, or a resource to be harvested (dragon parts, particularly oil rendered from their fat, are rather useful and valuable commodities). Ashlyn alone seems to have the foresight and thought to understand that the eradication of dragons is not the unalloyed good everyone else thinks it is. This drive of hers, in the end, propels far more of the plot than one might think from the novel’s front facing Bershad and his unkillable dragonslaying ways. Ashlyn is a fascinating character, and I found her more interesting than Bershad himself. Even when Bershad’s secrets start to peel away, it is Ashlyn who really resonates as the central figure of the novel. I really appreciated that she is definitely no damsel in distress, and fully capable of rescuing herself, as needed.
There are a couple of other points of view in the novel outside of these main two threads, but they act in service in the main plots rather than actually providing arcs and stories of their own. This is, I think, a bit of a missed opportunity. But the novel is paced well, with chapters at a good length and well-timed intercuts between the various narrative threads. I read the book quickly and easily, the novel is lean and an entertaining experience.
Overall, the novel is a bit of an odd fusion of elements that do not quite harmonize as much as I would like. On the one hand, we have a main character with a secret that is oddly spoiled right on the cover, even if the reader only gradually gets to tease out exactly why the Flawless Bershad is so difficult to kill. The novel itself, though, is far more interested and much more invested in the ecology and the impacts that dragons—and their potential extinction—have on their environment. (To that end there is an appendix at the back detailing a wide variety of Dragons, including their place in their ecosystems). In a flurry of recent fantasy novels centered on conflicts with dragons, I found this ecological take refreshing and interesting.
There is an attempt to tie all the threads together in the denouement of the novel, but it is really is a not quite seamless way. There are plenty of interesting elements, lots of fun and intriguing strands here and there, but the novel suffers a little bit from being too scattershot for its own good. When at one point, a secondary character tells Bershad that he feels like he is the hero of the tale, it’s meant as a funny line, but for me, it inadvertently points out where the novel might have gone a bit better.
The Blood of an Exile is available from Tor Books.
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).