The Dragon Scale Lute, the first in a fantasy series, about a small group of people in Ancient/Fantasy Asia squashing a war with the power of music.
I have to say we got off to a bad start, I can’t stand it when I open a book and the first thing I see is a glossary. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but I breezed on past it and put it out of my mind – this is a mistake, you ‘ll be need that glossary. Yes, it’s one of those.
Anyway I’ll go back to the beginning here. Dragon Scale Lute looks a little different at first, what with being set in Asia and having a lot of their mythological lore and customs woven nicely into the story, and of course the power of music thing is reasonably novel. Don’t get me wrong the change was nice – all good ideas, but they are just salad dressing – the actual salad, that is to say the ‘standard fantasy setting’ is still very much there.
That metaphor kind of got away from me there. Tortured metaphor aside, the fresh wall paper only gets it one or two brownie points, I’m interested in the real meat of the story underneath, so let’s get right to it.
There is a lot to like about The Dragon Scale Lute, the conspiracy plot is seamless and interesting; if you’re a fan of fantasy books big enough to beat goats to death with you’re very much in your comfort zone here. But honestly the most concise thing I can say is: This book reminded me a hell of a lot of ‘The Blade Itself’, in both its failings and successes.
Firstly, there’s the story presentation, we switch between three main characters to get the vital plot points and pieces. Again, like Abercrombie’s work, I found I only actually believed in one character out of three. Princess Kaiya who is, mercifully, the true main character and gets most of the read time as a result, she was well-balanced with some good internal monologue I really enjoyed. Not that it’s hard to make her my favourite when she’s standing next to ‘best-friend-from-childhood-who-is-now-part-of-a-secret-organisation-and-watches-from-afar’ and ‘sexy-lady-who-lusts-after-chilhood-friend-and-is-also-part-of-a-secret-organization’ – they are such stock characters I don’t even remember their names.
You’ll also note I say above that I ‘believed’ in Kaiya not once did I say ‘like’, because she’s got the same problem most fantasy characters have, in that she behaves like she’s been walking around with a bag on her head for the past decade, since she appeared to be doing nothing before the book began. Also she’s got this quality of hubris that makes me want to take her lute and beat her to death with it. But in a way I admired her for that, at least she isn’t ‘Perfect Princess 230,456’.
Secondly the writing style, it is quite lovely, the text flows, it’s complex, the imagery is not only original but beautiful. But there’s serious need of some editing, not grammar wise this is the first indie title I’ve seen in months that doesn’t need a grammar check so thumbs up, but the repetition and the pacing do little to endear me to read it. I’ll give an example, there’s a moment near the start where Kaiya accidentally drinks too much rice wine and then needs steady feet to go out and do important things, fine, but her lack of mental faculties is stated twelve times. That’s not because it causes anything to happen, it’s merely stated – but why? It’s not simply the ideas are reiterations, the statements themselves are repeated. It sounds like a small quibble, but it stacks up quickly when it keeps happening and it’s standing between you and a story that you’re just trying to enjoy. The most annoying thing about it is the book could have taken the wasted words and used them to explain its lore more because, frankly, that’s one of the best things about this book and the explanations of it come and go faster a vegan at a sausage tasting convention.
Last and yet the most important point is the immersion. This is a hard thing to explain as it can’t really be pin pointed as a result of anyone reason, and it’s a completely personal reaction, but none the less I simply couldn’t immerse myself in the Dragon Scale Lute. Perhaps it was the pacing, standing between me and a genuinely interesting plot, the fact that it’s over long, or perhaps it was the fantasy clichés that reared their head now and then (especially towards the end). Whatever the reason I found myself checking the % sign on my kindle constantly and going ‘Is that all I’ve read?!’. It just won’t let me in.
There’s a lot of things that are really good about this book, but I feel like the author built a house, an excellent house mind you, but forgot to build a door to let all his guests in.
Kaiya’s voice could charm a dragon. Had she lived when the power of music could still summon typhoons and rout armies, perhaps Cathay’s imperial court would see the awkward, gangly princess as more than a singing fool. With alliances to build and ambitious lords to placate, they care more about her marriage prospects than her unique abilities. Only the handsome Prince Hardeep, a foreign martial mystic, recognizes her potential. Convinced Kaiya will rediscover the legendary but perilous art of invoking magic through music, he suggests her voice, not her marriage, might better serve the realm. When members of the emperor’s elite spy clan– Kaiya’s childhood friend and his half-elf sidekick (or maybe he’s her sidekick?)– discover mere discontent boiling over into full-scale rebellion, Kaiya must choose. Obediently wedding the depraved ringleader means giving up her music. Confronting him with the growing power of her voice could kill her.