A young sword-wielding man sets out on a journey and faces off against a ruthless dragon. So goes a typical fantasy trope. Now turn that trope on its head, and you’ve got the premise of E. E. Knight’s Dragon Champion.
Young Auron is a rare scaleless grey dragon who has lost his family at the hands of bloodthirsty hominids. Alone in the world, he journeys to find other dragons, in hopes of stopping his species’ extinction before it’s too late.
After reading the back of the book, I immediately purchased it with high hopes.
So, did Dragon Champion live up to its expectations?
Well, yes and no.
Trope-inversion aside, this is not your typical fantasy fare. There are very few characters. There are no relationships to speak of. There is very little dialogue. This is, essentially, a man-versus-nature story of sheer survival. Only the man happens to be a dragon trying to survive.
And I capital-L-O-A-T-H-E loathe man-versus-nature stories.
Be they zombie apocalypse stories, or natural disaster stories, or what have you, I simply do not like them as a general rule.
So, no matter how skilled Knight’s writing may be (and it is!), this book never could be my cup of tea, due simply to its story type.
(When discussing the book with Dear Husband over dinner one night, he likened my reviewing dilemma to him trying to write a review of a period Victorian drama film. He’s just never going to like that sort of film.)
Hopefully it is a bit clearer now how I am at a bit of a loss in reviewing this book. I strongly disliked it, but I strongly applaud its superb writing. Oxymoronic statement? Eh, maybe.
For what it was, this book was very well written. From brutal storms to merciless famines, from carnal predators to threats of starvation, the obstacles that Auron faced felt very real and realistic. The descriptions of dehydration, loneliness, starvation, and primal fear all were fantastic. It is not often that I read a fantasy book that is quite so realistic in terms of the problems that a protagonist would actually face.
So often in fantasy books, if the protagonist goes on a long, lonesome journey, issues of basic safety and nutrition are often glossed over conveniently. The author might say something like, “Main Character fed himself off of berries and wild fish on his month-long journey, sleeping under the stars at night.”
But when you think about it, if someone is walking for ten or more hours a day, a handful of (possibly poisonous!) berries and fish are not enough nutrition. And clean drinking water and adequate food sanitation? Forget about it. To be fair, these are generally areas where we as readers are asked to suspend our disbelief. So, I found it refreshing that Knight embraced the man-versus-nature theme by making the struggles very realistic even in a fantasy novel.
Knight truly has a way with words when it comes to making the non-human characters and scenery feel alive:
The stars were cold and remote, and the moon hung in the sky like the shining edge on a dwarf ax.
Poetic descriptions like this peppered the book, which made for a visually distinct read.
Additionally, Knight did a fantastic job of making us see the world through a dragon’s point of view. I loved that Auron thought of humans as merciless and unfeeling, morally beneath dragons in the way that humans often think of animals:
Auron saw the elf clamp her jaw shut as tightly as his.
“Yes,” she finally said. Funny that hominids could show emotion now and again. It made them almost dragonlike.
Essentially, the book’s man-versus-nature theme is that the world is a cold, harsh place full of dangers, and by definition the circle of life means that we are all dangers to each other.
It was a hard world. Small fish were eaten by bigger fish, and the bigger fish were in turn eaten by the dolphins. It was not surprising that man ate the dolphins. A hard world.
Now, for my personal opinion. Due to my strong dislike of man-versus-nature stories, this was truly a struggle to get through.
I read to escape. I read for the characters, for the dialogue, for the intrigue and interaction and relationships. I don’t read to have images of starvation, dehydration, and carnal desperation rubbed in my face.
As one expects in a man-versus-nature story, there are some graphic descriptions of violence. For example, at one point the author describes Auron snapping the neck of a toddler and feasting on the child’s organs. Descriptions like this were so disgusting that I nearly had to put the book down for good.
While I personally detested the book’s graphic descriptions and depressing theme, I do applaud Knight’s writing and recommend this book to any fantasy lovers who enjoy gritty survival stories.
Tell me, have you read Dragon Champion? Or can you think of any books you’ve read where you could respect the writing but disliked the book?
Until next time,