Genre: Fantasy — Grimdark
Series: The Blood Dragon Empire #1
Publisher: Angry Robot (September 1, 2015)
Length: 384 pages
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
If J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin had gotten together to write a grimdark interpretation of The Hobbit, The Dragon Engine would have been what they came up with. Centered upon a quest to dwarven halls filled with mounds of gold and once inhabited by mighty dragons, it is a tale filled with pulse pounding combat, explicit sex, cringe worthy torture, and plenty of vulgar language. Literally, it is a story that gets your attention the simple, old-fashioned way.
For lovers of Andy Remic’s The Iron Wolves and The White Towers, this is a continuation of that series in that The Dragon Engine takes place in the same world several years after those stories. The mad King Yoon is still in control, swimming in absolute depravity and allowing the whole Kingdom of Vagandrak to go to hell. Meanwhile, a group of war heroes from the time of Orlana the Changer have grow bored of their fame and riches and determine to set out on one last, grand adventure together. Their destination the frigid, nearly inaccessible Karamakkos, where legends hold that the ancient Dwarven Lords ruled the Five Havens under the mountains, hoarding untold wealth as well as the three Dragon Heads — jewels claimed to grant everlasting life and great power to those who wield them!
Immediately upon starting this one, a long time reader will see that the main characters here are a bit different than those from the Rage of Kings series. Where Kiki and her friends were some of the most despicable pieces of human filth to ever grace the pages of a grimdark, Remic’s latest group isn’t quite so repugnant. Sure, they are still disgruntled war veterans, even though they are wealthy heroes, and they each have their own issues, but not one of them rivals the drug addicted, serial killer excesses of their predecessors. Rather Beetrax the Axe-Man and his friends struggle with more ordinary issues like growing old, loved one dying, relationships ending, and losing the zest for life.
Since this is begins as a classic quest tale, each of the Beetrax’s group seems designed to fill typical dungeon crawler roles. Beetrax is the damage dealer; Lillith is the healer; Talon is an archer; Dake and Jonti experts with the blade . . . You get the point. But it really isn’t the roles they play that makes Beetrax’s gang so fun to read about. Nope, unlike the Iron Wolves, these guys actually seem like old friends. There is plenty of playful banter. Occasionally their conversations will sparkle with feelings, revealing their past history together and the fragile sides of their nature. Old sorrows from romantic splits or new problems from being together will arise and be explored. Each interaction slowly revealing how close, how devoted these old friends are to one another, no matter the danger to themselves.
Every hero needs a villain however. And in today’s literature, it isn’t satisfactory to have nameless enemies or the shadowy of a dragon lying over the horizon. Nope, readers want to get to know their heroes’ nemesis, experience their evilness, and decide for themselves whether they love or hate this person. And so Andy Remic quickly splits the narrative into Beetrax and his friends quest and the life of one Cardinal Skalg of the Church of Hate, religious leader of the Harborym dwarves.
As you’d expect, the dwarves here are fairly standard fantasy versions: strong, stoic, and prejudiced against outsiders. (Beetrax’s group also believes they are long-extinct, which is why they are on their way to collect their long used and forgotten treasures.) Skalg, however, is an especially vile avatar of his race. Maybe, his maiming, torturing, and killing doesn’t reach Orlana the Changer levels, but he is still a fairly disgusting dwarf, no way around it, willing to rape innocent girls or do anything else to get what he wants. And his bad qualities only grow as the political struggle between himself and King Irlax of the dwarves grow. For, you see, in this kingdom under the mountains, king and cardinal are equal; each tasked with different things, but fated to eternally clash about everything. Skalg and Irlax’s constant bickering and machinations quickly growing into a societal revolution that will see either the crown or the church consumed in its flames.
Once our heroes arrive under the mountains and encounter Skalg’s dwarves is where the grimdark really shows up in our grimdark story, for the initial encounters are graphic, brutal affairs. Cruel, painful, cringe worthy even. In fact, many readers might believe Remic has gone too far in some cases, that these episodes are merely for shock value alone. I can understand why some would feel that way (even if I saw the horrible events fitting into the narrative), and I felt I should, at least, warn prospective readers about this section.
Thereafter follows a deluge of death, destruction, and betrayal as Remic concludes this opening chapter of The Blood Dragon Empire in classic grimdark style. Climatic clashes occur. Combat rages. Characters and civilizations end. And the real meaning of the dragon engine comes into focus, ending this first installment with a cliffhanger that will make grimdark lovers begin clamoring for the next book.
Since beginning to read Andy Remic, I’ve come to appreciate two things about his writing. One, he has a raw, visceral style that slaps you right in the face. No sugar coating the vulgar nature of humanity and the horrors of combat and war. No, they are vividly portrayed upon the pages, daring you to look away. Curse words abound. Buckets of blood and gore are tossed around indiscriminately. And, two, he creates vivid characters that never bore. I don’t always like these guys. Many times I actually despise them and want to personally decapitate them, but they definitely evoke a deep emotional cord with me, which means it is never a chore to flip to the next page.
I’d love to be able to sum The Dragon Engine up into a nice paragraph, but I really can’t. (Hey, I did try at the beginning, right?) This book dug its claws into me on so many levels it is hard to isolate what exactly made it a 4 star novel. Perhaps it was the complex but flawed heroes. Maybe the familiar Hobbit-esque quest morphing into a grimdark nightmare did it. The wonderfully paced story and realistic action definitely entertained. No matter the ingredients though, Remic casted a spell with this one, and if you haven’t experienced his take on grimdark, you really should give this one a try.
Angry Robot and Netgalley provided this book to me for free in return for an honest review. The review above was not paid for or influenced in any way by any person, entity or organization, but is my own personal opinions.