By Marc Turner
At the basic level, Marc Turner’s Dragon Hunters is about three things: huge water-dragons, awesome sword-fights, and Machiavellian politics. The second book in Turner’s Chronicles of the Exiles trilogy - although not strictly a sequel to the first When The Heavens Fall - also has a similarly complex set of disparate perspectives and political gambits that are eventually, inexorably, woven together.
Confusingly, very little of the book is about hunting dragons per se. Events take place on the Storm Isles and centre around their honouring tradition by releasing just the one (traditionally…) of the serpentine monsters through the Dragon Gate for the sport and profit of the assembled nobles and adventurers. It’s a colourful backdrop for the four main protagonists. Senar Sol is a handsome, magic-enhanced swordsman in accidental exile pressed into uncertain service by the ‘Emira’ (the currently reigning Storm Lady). The Gilgamarian Kalisch, Lady Agenta, is an able but distant young lady struggling with her brother[s recent death and her merchant father’s stolen cargo of gemstones. Septia Kempis Parr is a city watchman, desperately trying to keep his head above water, figuratively and often literally. Karmel Flood is a Chameleon — an assassin with a power you can likely guess — sent on a near-suicide mission she doesn’t understand by a brother she’s no longer sure she can trust.
The central and supporting characters are very strong overall, with plenty of flaws, nuances and ties to embed them believably in the universe. No-one is outright evil, although plenty are menacing and unlikeable. Said universe feels underdeveloped however, and though it makes sense to some extent as The Storm Isles are rather isolated, it doesn’t help you to ground the action in a wider context, or feel as invested as possible. Events take in a few districts of the city, briefly, and overall the city of Olaire isn’t as strong a character as it could be. There are mentions of Gilgamaar, and Senar Sol’s homeland Erin Elal and another more menacing race, but they’re mere glimpses.
There is plenty of mostly satisfying action, derring-do and duplicity in the lead up to the denouement, and this climax makes up for a lot of minor flaws. Again without revealing too much, it’s an absolute vortex of cause and effect, bringing together many disparate strands into a chaotic, gripping orgy of violence and shifting allegiances. This is where the book shines, in moral grey areas and in the reader never being quite sure of anyone’s motives, or how they’re going to react. It’s pleasantly realistic for a fantasy novel.
Turner’s writing is largely without fault. The humour however, often feels a little forced. There’s plenty of pathos and usually dark humour in the actual events, so it’s a shame when a character tries to capitalise on it with a one liner that sours the mood. That aside, the book flows along, foregoing lyricism for character motivations, action and the minimum necessary description.
The first half of the book often feels at risk of unravelling, due to the often jarring shifts in perspective and a wave of proper nouns, but there’s a strong enough undercurrent of intrigue and investment in the fates of the protagonists. There are some teasing nods to the wider jeopardy of the series too, and Dragon Hunters ends in a way that’s satisfying enough but absolutely begs for some consequences in book three. All told, it doesn’t quite feel essential in isolation but if the sequel follows through, we could have a really solid, well fleshed out fantasy universe and series on our hands.
Written on 9th May 2016 by Danny.