The Adamantine Palace (book, Stephen Deas, 2009)


From Death Ray #18.

Writer: Stephen Deas

Publisher: Gollancz

THREE STARS

Dragons get big and mean, politics small and unclean in this fantasy debut from Stephen Deas.

Who doesn’t like a nice dragon? The scaly behemoths are one of the cornerstones of the fantasy genre, so it’s a bit puzzling we don’t get more books about them. We suppose it’s because they are so vastly powerful that they’d quickly overwhelm any opposition, which is kind of the point to The Adamantine Palace.

The Adamantine Palace is set in a fantasy kingdom divided into nine separate realms whose rulers depend upon the power of their dragon-mounted knights. Naturally, these dragon kings and queens are all at each other’s throats, vying for the position of Speaker of the Realms, kind of high king, and hopping in and out of each other’s beds. Only the awesome power of their pet lizards and a web of alliances stop their spats bubbling over into outright war.

Anti-hero Prince Jehal is keen on the grabbing the big chair at the top table, and is thus happily murdering, shagging and double-crossing his way to the throne, which, as exciting as that is, is only half the story. The extensive b-plot follows a dragon mount after it gets free during an attempt to steal it. Released from the drugs the realms’ alchemists dope the beast with, this pedigree white dragon, dubbed “Snow” soon regains its native intelligence. Brains and free will go hand in hand with a violent racial memory, telepathy, need to aggressively smash everything up, a regard for humans as snacks and a shocking propensity for arson in dragonland, so you can kind of see why they are kept under the chemical cosh in Dea’s world.

With the dragons’ destructive abilities never far from the author’s mind, he puts on a good show. The story runs like a whippet, while its politics keep up the amusement with Jehal’s relentless treachery. That’s good. The world it all takes place in is another matter, it never rings true, and while there’s a gloss of surface detail there’s not enough to convince that the author truly knows his setting. True, some novels bore with their obsessive attention to how peasants make shoes out of Orcskin, but world building is part and parcel of the genre, and when we have as potentially a fascinating one as this, we’d like to know how it works. Instead, the backdrop is as convincing as a bare stage, and the twin stories not strong enough to distract us from it.

The characters too could do with a certain additional three-dimensionality. A lot of them experience love, but don’t understand it, they often think in plot points that trail away like little arrows to the next shoehorned info nugget, while their motivations are predicated on what the story needs a little too often. There are moments where you feel that Deas is using their internal monologues to convince himself that what they are about to do is true to form, and not to provide character, the result being that you don’t quite believe in any of it. In its politics and people, the Adamantine Palace hints at complexity, but turns out to be almost disarmingly simple. Still, we don’t want to be too hard on Deas, this is a better first book than some and good fun.

Did you know?

For other fantasies with a big dragon content try The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick, The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin, Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, or alternate Napoleonic history series Temeraire by Naomi Novik. Surprisingly, both James Maxey’s Bitterwood trilogy and the never-ending Pern saga by Anne McCaffrey are actually science fiction, with genetically engineered winged lizards (and, one could argue, plots).

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