Cecelia Holland, Dragon Heart. Tor Books, 2015. Pp. 286. ISBN 978-0-7653-3794-8. $25.99.Reviewed by Cait Coker
For the first time in ages, I’ve recently joined a writing group. Thus far we’ve had several conversations about writing genre, and what that means, both online and face-to-face. One of the things I’ve found puzzling, in both the teaching of writing and of speculative literature, is the difficulties that abound in describing what makes a genre, any genre, a member of a specific category. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Romance stories obviously have love as a consistent theme, mysteries a puzzle or murder to solve, science fiction has rocket ships (unless, of course, it doesn’t), fantasy has magic, and history has, well, history. But if we look more closely, it’s amazing how quickly these supposed walls disappear, and how excellent writers can take a hoary staple and utterly subvert it. Further, as the popularity of Young Adult literature has shown, genre mash-ups create entirely new sub-genres like dystopian romances or historic fantasy, among many others. And it’s with these thoughts in mind that I started reading Cecelia Holland’s Dragon Heart, a fantasy novel by a writer who has made her mark in historical fiction.
With over two dozen novels published, in addition to a handful of non-fiction works, Dragon Heart is Holland’s first work of speculative fiction in forty years; her previous effort was Floating Worlds (1976), a story about Martian colonists. Despite this lapse, which would ordinarily indicate a lengthy work that the author had crafted over ages with conspicuous care and attention, Dragon Heart is both concise and rushed. Jeon is a young prince in an embattled kingdom come to a small cloister to fetch his sister Tirza back for their mother’s wedding; on their way home their ship is wrecked by a dragon and Tirza stolen away. Using her wits, she must charm the dragon to stay alive long enough to escape and find her brother and her way home again. This is also the entirety of the first chapter, and the breakneck pace of the story never lets up once you start. This is a gift and a curse; I couldn’t put the book down once I started, but so much happens that it’s a disorienting experience for the reader. Further, the book contains no maps and minimal references to geography, only place names, so I often had little idea where characters were, how long it took them to travel, or even worse, little indication as to what was happening or even why. I wonder if this is a problem with Holland’s historical novels, but I doubt it: a story located as being “in England” and as “Celts versus Saxons” or “Saxons versus Normans” would provide a load of cultural details, taken for granted, that the reader could sketch in for themselves. Displaced to an original world where the rules are never quite explained (there’s an Empire? and a small kingdom to conquer for… reasons?), I kept hoping there would be some key to understanding who the many characters were and why they were doing what they were doing. Alas, if there was, I couldn’t find it.
This might make it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, but on the contrary, I enjoyed specific bits of it while being frustrated by the rest, and nonetheless, I respect the book for what it was doing: Holland doesn’t play by the rules here, and that can be a frustrating experience. The closest analogy I can think of is when I was reading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones for the first time and being genuinely shocked by the fate of Ned Stark. One does not kill one’s main characters willy-nilly (unless one does), and one does not introduce a dragon only to promptly forget about it for ages (unless one does). For a novel with a dragon on the cover and in the title, there is surprisingly little dragon on the page, but this too is a choice, and one Holland indicates early on when Tirza is doing her best impression of Scheherazade, constantly telling stories to live one day more:
Of all this Tirza made stories. As the generations piled one on another, like the rocks of Castle Ocean, King followed on King, rescuing Princesses, punishing the wicked, battling monsters in the sea, chasing pirates, and defending his people, stories sprouting and intertwining, growing on one another. She fed all these stories to the dragon, except one. (27)By placing so much of the story without context, we have to query what it is that we as readers bring to what we’re reading, how we fill in the blanks of narrative with knowledge that we “know,” or have only learned through reading dozens of other, similar, books. A noble prince saving his sister from a fate worse than death? This is a familiar story, but… is that fate the dragon, or only the life that Tirza leads within the restrictive confines of a brutal patriarchy? Is a prince noble through his birth, or through the decisions he makes? The answers may, or may not, surprise you.