The Dragon of Despair by Jane Lindskold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The fact that this was a very long read has nothing to do with the quality of the book, because as with the first two volumes, this is a solid, engaging fantasy. Lindskold's world is not an unusual one, although New Kelvinese society becomes more intriguing on further inspection and the Royal Beasts continue to provide interesting wrinkles and an evolving multi-book conflict. Rather, the pleasure is in the characters and their adventures.
The book begins with one plot and continues with another (which isn't as disjointed as it sounds, but the first plot is obviously intended to set up for book four). Firekeeper, raised by Royal Beasts but now a member of Hawk Haven noble society - almost - must deal with the conflict between the animal kin who raised her and Hawk Haven settlers moving onto their turf. The ambivalence that Firekeeper feels throughout these interactions is compelling, and as ever, Lindskold's animal societies are well-rounded. I particularly appreciate the fact that she pays attention to the social aspects of wolves, often drawing parallels between their manueverings and those of human society. This kind of subtlety I find is lacking sometimes even in werewolf stories, where the participants are in theory even more human.
The second plot picks up with the mental illness of young Citrine, abandoned by her sorcerous mother Melina but still in her thrall. A handpicked group heads into New Kelvin to bring about a confrontation between the two and hopefully free Citrine from her mother's domination. Again, Citrine's evolution is compelling here. It's dysfunction well portrayed. Lindskold gets deep inside her devotion, and it's a mildly creepy place to be.
Unfortunately, I think the weight of the previous two volumes got in the way of this one: the book is slow off the mark, taking a long time to get past some minor info-dumping (not too bad, but certainly not as well done as in previous volumes) and a lot of characters meeting other characters and talking to each other. It's good dialogue, but there's a lot of it. The middle sections of the story progress steadily, laying groundwork for the future without feeling unfinished.
Then, later on, it gets uneven again. Now, in fairness, I was having some issues making myself read (not a reflection on the book, just an expression of my headspace) at the time, so perhaps how I was reading the book exacerbated it, but it seemed like large chunks of in-story time passed with nothing happening, which - while it was quick to read; Lindskold doesn't waste time in filler - felt disjointed and strange. It was hard to credit the characters would just sit there. I really wanted to know a bit more about what was going on that got glossed. That is a tribute to how fun they are to follow, though!
As we approach the end, some plot points aren't properly foreshadowed. This isn't a huge deal - it's not deus ex machina, just details - but it's one of my pet peeves.
On the other hand (paw!), Firekeeper's dreams build nicely throughout, culminating in an explanation of their true nature that is very satisfying. Early in the book, I had issues with the fact that Firekeeper's evolution as a human - deftly handled in the first two books, neither slow nor fast - seemed to have stagnated. This isn't unrealistic, of course - people hit plateaus - but it was frustrating not to see her progress further in her understanding of the human world around her. However, by the end of the book, I would have to say that I feel this objection was met. Firekeeper may not have come out and realized the moral of the story, but I as a reader felt its impact.
This one gets four stars as a continuation, but I might only give it 3.5 stars as a standalone book. It's still very readable that way (which is quite a feat, given how much happened in those books!), but the flaws become more objectionable. If you've not read them, pick up Through Wolf's Eyes and Wolf's Head, Wolf's Heart first.
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