In my review of Bruce Davis's 'Gold Magic' in June, I noted that I'm getting a little behind with Brick Cave Media publications. I haven't reviewed all that I've read, I haven't read all that I've bought and I haven't bought all that they've published. So, here's one more to help catch up. It's from J. A. Giunta and, if he wasn't the first author they published, he was certainly the most obvious for a while, with his 'Ascension Trilogy'. Which I own. And haven't read. Sassinfrassin.
This is a new book, published early this year, and it's a standalone fantasy novel that's quite unusual in that there's only one human being in it and he doesn't even have a name, though he goes by Crier because he cried a lot as a child, perhaps understandably given that he was being looked after at the time by a dragon and that must have felt rather weird. For quite a while, Crier feels like a MacGuffin, the key to everything, but only a very few characters even know he exists for the longest time.
Frankly, while Crier is massively important to the development of the story, my questions were about Stonefall from moment one. He's the first character we meet and he's the dragon mentioned above. He's ten-years-old when we meet him and he's been on his own for five of those, struggling to survive in a unique post-apocalyptic world that may or not be ours. Mankind is gone. The dragons aren't the only species left, but they rule. However, the world around them has been devastated and destroyed and food is scarce.
Most of my questions revolved around what Stonefall is beyond that, because he's clearly different in a number of ways from the other dragons around, who are generally more stereotypical in that they live up to their beastlike representation. Stone is an intelligent and reasoning being and he gets the best of these early, always larger opponents through brain rather than brawn. There's obviously a lot to know about him and we know almost none of it, though, to be fair, neither does he. This novel is as much a voyage of discovery for him as it is for us and we learn at the same time.
The most obvious way Stone distinguishes himself is in what he does when he stumbles on a tree with a passage inside it, leading to an egg surrounded by magic and containing a human baby. We get the impression that other dragons would see this as a snack, but Stone finds a way to open the egg and he takes care of the living child who emerges. He also wonders, as we do, at this baby's strange ability to bring life at a touch. Plants spring up around him and the tree starts to return to its expected glory.
To counter this unusual activity, Glim leeches that life away like an energy thief. She's the third major character in our book and, for quite some time, they're the only three who matter. We're kept in the dark about what she is too, though it's clear that she's some sort of fey and she calls herself a Shadow Walker. If we're on Stone's side from moment one, which means that we're inherently on Crier's too, we don't side with Glim as quickly and we're not sure if the others should be associating with her. She could be bad news as easily as she could be good.
It took me a while to appreciate this book, because it builds considerably. It starts out rather simply, a small cast of characters not doing much, and what little they do seems convenient. However, it's very much worth sticking with because our appreciation of the world Giunta that conjures up grows with a succession of revelations. We learn, as Stone learns, what's really going on, not just about him but an increasingly large and varied world. In fact, we re-learn, as Stone re-learns, because it soon becomes clear that he's been lied to all his life, making him an inadvertently unreliable narrator.
And, as we realise that, we ask more and more questions, becoming more and more tied up with the story and the world in which it unfolds, and, as Giunta starts to answer our questions, we appreciate the book all the more. I also appreciate the fast forward button that he presses, because there's no reason for us to watch Crier grow up, even as we note that the book is only two hundred pages long. So Giunta gets these primary characters into a safe space and skips eleven years in seven pages and only then sets up where we're all going to go next.
Because the book is such a revelatory creature, it's difficult to talk about it without leaping headlong into spoiler territory. I'll just say that there are other characters and they belong to many species, not all of them enemies but not all of them friends either, so if I'm giving the impression that this plays it simple and focuses only on three characters, I've hopefully corrected that erroneous expectation. We get answers to the vast majority of questions that we pose and it may well be that the ones I had left aren't that important in the grand scheme of things. And the ending is very satisfying indeed.
There also aren't a lot of downsides and they're pretty minor. For instance, it's probably not a great idea to call years "turns" in a book about dragons unless it's a deliberate nod to Anne McCaffrey and I don't believe this one is. There's a cutesy character called Notch who has nothing much to do beyond suggest an obvious plush toy if this book should ever be adapted into a Hollywood movie.
There's also the convenience factor which feels like a downside for a while, but I'm not convinced that it actually is. Even though we don't know where the story is going to end up for quite a while, because we don't have enough information to figure that out, there's a sense of inevitability to it that has an abiding reason to be there that we'll eventually discover. So I think it's an upside that merely feels as if it could be a downside because of the unusual way in which the book unfolds.
And pretty much everything else I can't talk about because spoilers. Maybe I can sneak in a mention of the first mage scene, because it deserves to be praised as a powerful and impactful scene. It's not the only one but it'll stay with me more than the others, I think. For the rest, you'll need to read this yourself. And you should, even though it looks like a younger read than Giunta's other recent books for Brick Cave like 'War Golem' and 'Supernal Dawn', the latter a collaboration with Sharon Skinner. I would say that this one ought to work well as a read for adults as well as young adults. ~~ Hal C F Astell