Dragonoak: The Complete History of Kastelir
Spoiler Rating: Moderate
Finest of Katies,
It’s the end of NaNoWriMo Week Three (no, I won’t talk about my word count), and I finally have a self-published novel to tell you about!
Looking for a lesbian, dragon-slaying knight questing across kingdoms and falling in love in the process? Look no further! Or maybe you should keep looking; Dragonoak: The Complete History of Kastelir reads approximately as well as a first draft submitted to my writing group: a promising, fresh, malleable thing in need of serious revisions, not a finished work. Unfortunately, I have to rate it as the published novel it is, not the novel it could become.
I should mention I initially found Sam Farren on Tumblr, where I’m a devoted follower of their snake blog. (Even Andrew, who’s snake-ambivalent, thinks Toffee is adorable.) Farren doesn’t know I exist, but if you’re worried that I’m biased, feel free to keep that in mind.
Okay, to the critique.
After being exiled to the farmland around her village, Rowan Northwood takes the only chance at freedom she might ever get: she runs away with a passing Knight and doesn’t look back. The woman cares nothing for Rowan’s company, but nor does she seem perturbed by the powers that burn within her.
Rowan soon learns that the scope of their journey is more than a desperate grasp at adventure. She breaks away from the weighty judgement of her village, but has no choice but to abandon her Kingdom altogether. Sir Ightham’s past leads them through Kastelir, a country draped in the shadow of its long-dead Queen—a woman who was all tusks and claws and great, spiralling horns.
Hiding her necromancy is no longer Rowan’s greatest challenge, and what leads them across Kingdoms and through mountains is a heavier burden than she ever could’ve imagined.
- The main characters are a lesbian and a homoromantic gray-asexual woman, and I seriously can’t contain my excitement about that.
- The wider cast includes lesbian and gay couples, and their relationships aren’t taboo.
- Women fill (what we view as) traditionally male roles, including high-ranking positions in the army (pardon my swoon).
- Characters who don’t fit the male/female gender binary use third-person pronouns, and no one thinks twice about it.
- The main character is dark-skinned and dark-haired.
- She enters into a romance with a pale-skinned and light-haired woman.
(Side note: race doesn’t appear to be a source of tension in Dragonoak. However, it’s worth pointing out that Rowan, the main character and first-person narrator, is a farmer from a small village, and she’s described as a person of color. Sir Ightham, who is of much higher birth and was raised in the capital city, and who has attained the exalted position of Knight, is white.)
- Rowan and Sir Ightham get to know each other, establish trust, and build romantic tension by small, tantalizing degrees.
- The scenes that advance their relationship into a romance (like the first time they hold hands) are well written and worthy of multiple rereads.
- They don’t immediately flip from Companions With Romantic Tension to Clingy Soulmates.
- In fact, they never become Clingy Soulmates.
- Their romance isn’t the be-all end-all focus of the story.
- The romantic interest is a knight who is crazy-skilled with her sword.
- The main character tries to learn sword-fighting, and (unlike so many main characters out there) she doesn’t pick it up easily or with supernatural speed.
- Rowan’s brand of necromancy is awesome, and not something I’d ever read before.
- Information about her magic is doled out slowly.
- Her magic isn’t a Super Useful Multipurpose Tool that she and her companions are constantly relying on throughout their adventures.
- This is a world with an extensive and plot-significant backstory.
- The novel is not, like its title suggests, a boring history textbook with all the events laid out chronologically; it focuses on a small cast of characters living in a world that’s haunted by its past.
- The kingdom’s history is told through legends and stories and first-person accounts and rumors, all slowly coming together until the final piece clicks into place.
I’ll only discuss the most significant four things that could improve, because this isn’t an actual critique for my writing group and I need limits. Four seems like a good limit.
Let’s see how well I stick to it.
Thing The First: Narrative Technique
1. The Narrator Isn’t The Protagonist
Protagonists must overcome obstacles to achieve a goal; their struggles are the point of their story. The people who actually tell that story are narrators. The protagonist and the narrator don’t always have to be the same person, but sometimes—like here—using two separate people for those roles can have a significant, negative impact on the story.
Rowan narrates Dragonoak in the first person, and possesses none of the traits of a protagonist (goal, obstacles to overcome, antagonist, character arc, climactic goal-related moment, etc.). Throughout the book, Rowan just tags along behind Sir Ightham and sightsees.
Meanwhile, Sir Ightham has a Super Secret Quest that takes her through kingdoms and across wilderness; it has her fleeing pursuit, collecting confidential information, and scheming with some very powerful people. But the details of Sir Ightham’s quest are kept hidden from the reader, because Rowan doesn’t know about/isn’t involved in it. (Italics for emphasis.) Rowan/the reader doesn’t find out what Sir Ightham’s up to until very late in the book—and even then, Rowan still doesn’t get involved. She continues to just hang about while Sir Ightham is protagonisting off-screen.
This is agonizing. Yes, splitting the narrator and the protagonist can be an effective storytelling technique, but that’s not the case in this particular version of this particular story. It left me hobbled to Rowan the Aimless Tourist when I really wanted to be questing alongside Bad Ass Sir Ightham.
Do I think this problem could be fixed? Definitely, with serious revisions. But (as I obviously still haven’t accepted) this isn’t a manuscript, and I need to let go of my dream of seeing those revisions realized. (Why is it so hard to let go?)
2. Rowan Is Somehow Omniscient
For a first-person narrator, Rowan knows an awful lot about what’s going on in the minds of the people around her. Take, for example, this group of bandits:
Two issues here: (1) the “self-proclaimed leader” never actually told Rowan and Sir Ightham that he’s the leader, so it appears Rowan already knows the history of this particular group of bandits; (2) the leader scowled silently, but Rowan knows exactly why he scowled.
Another sign of an omniscient first-person narrator is the liberal use of phrases like “as though,” “I knew,” “no doubt,” “seemed,” and so on. These phrases appear innocent enough, especially when they imply some doubt (“as though”), but they become dangerous when the writer relies on them to tell the reader what’s really going on in the non-point-of-view character’s head.
Although there are many possible reasons for Sir Ightham to pinch her lips, Rowan immediately jumps to a specific conclusion—a conclusion that the reader is supposed to believe is accurate.
This type of mistake is common for several reasons, including:
(i.) The writer has a hard time divorcing themselves from the viewpoint character, leading to a sort of bleed-over of knowledge from the author to the character.
(ii.) The writer’s writing style relies on telling the reader what they need to know (“Our eyes met, and he scowled as if he’d hoped to never see me again”) rather than showing the reader and trusting that the reader will figure it out (“Our eyes met, and he recoiled, smile souring”).
Although it’s not enjoyable to read, this mistake is easy to fix, and certainly not the end of the world.
Thing The Second: Conflict And Pacing
Some key facts about conflict:
- Conflicts are those obstacles that a protagonist must overcome to succeed in their goal.
- Conflicts force protagonists to react, to reevaluate, to modify or change their course of action.
- Conflicts should (ideally) build upon and complicate each other, raising the tension and the stakes as the protagonist’s goal becomes (seemingly) farther from reach.
- Conflicts should (ideally) be tied to both the story’s theme and the main characters’ arcs (what they learn over the course of the story, and how they change as a result).
Frankly, I’m not clear on what the story’s theme is, nor did I see any character arcs. Which is, you know, not a good thing.
On top of that, there just isn’t much conflict in Dragonoak. Sir Ightham’s quest is surely conflict-filled, but (again) it’s kept Super Secret for most of the book.
Rowan’s sightseeing, meanwhile, is inconsequential; she’s not struggling for or with anything, not accomplishing anything, not learning anything significant. Yes, there are a few times when Rowan seems to be in danger of drawing attention that’ll get her burned at the stake (the standard fate for necromancers), but those tense moments quickly dissipate without any interesting follow-through.
Now, there are a couple of false/minor conflicts that involve both Rowan and Sir Ightham:
- They’re attacked a few times. The attackers appear out of nowhere and are swiftly defeated, and our heroines continue on their way. Injuries might be sustained, but neither the attacks nor the injuries significantly affect the plot.
- Someone they want to talk to isn’t where they’d thought she’d be, so their journey is extended by several weeks to reach her. This isn’t a big deal, because Sir Ightham’s quest apparently isn’t on a tight schedule.
That said, there are two really fantastic, A+, two-thumbs-up obstacles thrown in Sir Ightham’s path. No, I won’t tell you what they are, because spoilers.
What makes them fantastic, A+, two-thumbs-up obstacles? Two things.
- They throw a huge wrench into Sir Ightham’s plan, bringing her whole mission to a grinding halt.
- They aren’t mere personal challenges for Sir Ightham to overcome; they’re events that will dramatically affect the kingdom and the world at large.
Unfortunately, both conflicts come very late in the story; you have to push through a great deal of Rowan the Tourist Touristing About before you get to them. Also unfortunately, the first of those two conflicts isn’t handled quite as realistically as I would’ve liked, and therefore isn’t as powerful as it could’ve been.
In sum, this story—which is a whopping 160,000-ish words, far exceeding the norm for fantasy novels—is 75% conflict-free traveling, followed by two brief periods of conflict (themselves separated by casual sightseeing). Clearly, pacing is an issue.
Thing The Third: Nuanced Portrayals Of People
One reason why I adore Maggie Stiefvater’s writing is how nuanced her portrayal of each character is. They aren’t characters at all, they’re people: complex, idiosyncratic, and lovingly described by an author who knows them as intimately as she knows herself. You learn something about each character from, like, the way they hold a pencil or turn pages in a book. Her portrayals are immersive and gorgeous, and oh my goodness hold on I’m having a writer-crush moment. Just thinking about her writing gets my heart a-flutter.
Now, I’m not saying that every writer has to achieve Stiefvater levels of nuance in order to be successful. I’m saying that some nuance is important to make the characters people, and that a lack of nuance results in characters who read like cardboard cutouts: they’re the same size and shape as people, but lack the depth required to convince me that they are people.
Dragonoak has plenty of nuanced moments, some of which are especially well written, but it also has too many instances of cardboard cutouts. For the sake of making any sense at all, I’ll break those cardboardish moments down into three types: portraying emotions, portraying change, and portraying groups.
1. Portraying Emotions
A lack of nuance turns emotions (which are complex) and their expressions (which are complex) into simplified equations.
- Happy Person = grinning, laughing
- Upset Person = crossed arms, scowling
- Nervous Person = fidgeting, stammering
A writer who doesn’t pause to consider to the finer details of (a) the situation and (b) their character’s emotion and behavior is prone to thinking, “Okay, the character is nervous. Nervous people fidget and stammer,” and will rarely deviate from that stereotypical description of nervousness.
But how emotions are expressed varies widely between people and situations. When I’m in a room full of strangers whose eyes are all on me, I get the flushed-nauseous-trembling sort of nervous that takes a few minutes to recover from. When I need to mingle and get to know a roomful of strangers, I get the smiling-inquisitive-engaging sort of nervous that can (apparently) pass as not being nervousness at all. This is because—surprise—I’m a real person, and I react to different situations differently, even if the primary emotion I’m feeling is essentially the same.
How a person experiences and expresses their emotions can also be influenced by what they’d been feeling/doing the moment before. A teen who’s furious at her parents probably won’t turn all glitter and rainbows when they give her a piece of good news; that anger will affect how she experiences and portrays her sudden happiness (if she even feels happiness at all; the anger might be too strong). Meanwhile, a writer who doesn’t consider the nuance of this teen’s emotions might say that she went from Stereotypical Anger (crossed arms, scowling) to Stereotypical Happiness (laughing, grinning) in the space of a few seconds.
The result are characters who all display their emotions in unrealistic and, frankly, boring ways.
(Trust me, I know. My computer’s full of old novels and stories populated with cardboard characters; they’re so boring that I can’t bring myself to read them, and I wrote them myself. That’s terrible.)
This isn’t always an issue in Dragonoak—like I said, the book has its nuanced moments—but those cardboard emotional displays popped up more often than I would’ve preferred in a book that’s already published.
2. Portraying Change
People typically change in increments; depending on what about a person is changing (maturity level, personal or religious beliefs, their understanding of themselves or their society, etc.), it’s a process that can take weeks, months, years, or lifetimes to complete.
If a writer doesn’t consider the finer details of how people change, a character’s major change can be reduced to (at worst) a switch that’s instantaneously flipped from one position to the opposite. An immature brat becomes respectful and responsible overnight; a do-gooder morphs abruptly into an evil villain.
In Dragonoak, Rowan recognizes and overcomes her own extreme prejudice. Character arcs that involve unlearning prejudices are awesome, and I really like the set-up for Rowan’s prejudice. However, when one’s prejudices run as deep and powerful as Rowan’s, the process of unlearning them should realistically take quite some time—certainly much longer than the mere days it takes Rowan to shed hers.
Had this change taken a more realistic amount of time, it could’ve added some neat conflicts and tension to the story. But it was cut too short, and as a result, it didn’t offer anything useful or even interesting to the story.
3. Portraying Groups
It might be easiest to pinpoint a lack of nuance in descriptions of groups of people; groups become a single entity, all identically experiencing the same thought or emotion.
No two people will have exactly the same reaction to anything, much less a group of several hundred. Regarding the second excerpt, I expect there’d be the “emergency mode” people who get focused and serious during a crisis, there’d be the “practical mode” people who just stay on task because the situation could get messier if they don’t, there’d be the “take-advantage-of-this-opportunity mode” people who might decide this is their chance to steal something or leave an unexpected gift in their crush’s bag or go take a nap while their boss is otherwise occupied. And so on, forever.
Describing a group of people, especially a very large group, as all experiencing exactly the same emotion (especially if they’re all displaying that emotion in the same general way) is unrealistic and boring. I want to read about various people struggling with and expressing a variety of emotions, not cardboard cutouts identically mimicking identical emotions.
In sum: I’m not a fan of simplified portrayals of characters’ emotions or arcs. Nuance is where it’s at.
Thing The Fourth: Research Is Important
Writers exist in a lifelong state of research, which often involves looking up information about things they have no personal knowledge of but are going to be writing about. You can’t very well write a novel set in ninth-century Japan if you don’t know anything about ninth-century Japan.
Okay, you can write that novel, but you’ll get tons of things horribly wrong, and those errors will affect how well your novel is received, especially among readers who do know something (or can make educated guesses) about ninth-century Japan.
Sloppy research or a lack of research can, in short, cause hang-ups for readers that the writer hadn’t anticipated.
Me, I get fidgety when anything horse-related isn’t accurately portrayed because (1) I’m a horse person and like seeing things done correctly, and (2) it’s quite easy for non-horse-people to research horse things, so there’s generally no excuse for getting the basics wrong.
Dragonoak had some issues with its horses that set me a bit atwitch.
1. Characters Mishandling Their Horses
Characters who own and work with their horses (such as a knight and a farm girl) should reasonably know how to handle those horses. Sir Ightham and Rowan, uh, don’t. Such as here, when Rowan’s riding her horse Charley and bandits come upon them in the forest:
Horses are not humans; they’re prey animals. Prey animals whose panic isn’t soothed by hugging because, again, they’re not humans. A rider on a nervous, fidgety horse is best off remaining calm and quiet in the saddle, in hopes that their calm will in turn calm the horse. Leaning forward to hug a nervous horse’s neck (1) will put the rider dangerously off-balance should the horse shy suddenly, (2) will make it very difficult for the rider to control the horse, and (3) could actually increase the horse’s confusion and alarm about the situation.
These characters also spend a lot of time tugging their reins to make their horses go. Reins are (one of several tools used) for steering and slowing a horse; the rider’s legs (and/or clicking of the tongue or a verbal command) are used to cue the horse to go. Also, the word “tug” denotes pulling forcefully, which is bad horsemanship in its own right.
2. Characters Failing To Care For Their Horses
Rowan and Sir Ightham should presumably also know basic horse care, such as the fact that saddles and bridles can’t be left on 24/7. There’s a serious potential for injury to the horse (and damage to the tack) if a horse’s tack isn’t removed regularly.
Here’s a particularly twitch-worthy example for you. The humans are heading to a town high in the mountains, and the route they take won’t accommodate the horses. So what do they do with the horses?
Once again the horses are left saddled and bridled for days, but here they’re tied to trees, unsupervised, in a remote field at the base of remote mountains. I can foresee nothing but terrible things for these horses.
- They need to be able to walk to graze their fill and (presumably) to reach that stream.
- They might roll and tangle their legs in their reins, risking serious injury.
- They could be attacked by predators and unable to run.
- They might spook and tear their reins free (possibly causing serious damage to their mouths), then tangle their legs in those now-flapping reins, risking (further) serious injury.
And so on.
Will everyone who reads this book notice these horse-related errors? No. Can a book’s errors on any subject (horses, history, how something’s made or used, etc.) affect how readers experience and enjoy the book? Yes.
Fortunately, the horses and the way they’re handled didn’t influence the plot. They just serve as a gentle reminder that writers really should take the time to do their research.
Okay. I said I’d limit my critique to the four most important points, and I think I technically succeeded.
Would I recommend you read Dragonoak? I’m not sure. It’s rough and very long, but it’s also promising, with a lovely touch of romance. I guess it depends on whether you have the time and patience to devote to a novel that isn’t well plotted and executed. (Which I know you don’t, since you’re finishing your doctorate and teaching and generally bad-assing around.)
I will say that there’s a very good chance I’ll be picking up its sequel eventually. Farren’s an imaginative writer with interesting stories to tell (seriously, I hope they write a prequel telling Rán’s story), and I’d like to see how their writing improves.
In the meantime, I’ve picked up a few new lesbian YA novels that I plan to read in the next several months; all fingers are crossed that they turn out well.