The Dragons of Dorcastle is an interesting entrant into the Jack Campbell/John G Hemry catalogue: it has all the hallmarks but also the excesses of his writing. But with the YA angle, several defy the genre but too many simple don’t work. Admittedly, I was bored and even annoyed through 3/4 of the book and only at the end did I ever engage with the characters or the story. In a nutshell, this features both the strengths of the Lost Fleet series with the weaknesses of earlier work such as Stark’s War.
Story: On a planet where the inhabitants originally came from ‘the stars’ but have developed into a somewhat steampunk Western 1800s feel, two guilds fight for power. The mages take what they want and have eschewed emotion in order to hone their illusion magic techniques. The mechanics are mercenary and zealously guard technology and its use. Both despise the other and have built up an elaborate series of lies to indoctrinate their members in that hate. Into this scene, two teens – 18 year old Master Mechanic Mari and 17 year old mage Alain find themselves on a caravan under siege in the desert. They will join forces and begin to unravel the elaborate system of lies that is slowly destroying their culture and civilization.
Problematic for me were the Campbellisms: Militant/military forces that are riddled with incompetence, greed, or ambivalence typically are a setting for an everyman with a moral compass. The male hero will be emotionally stunted and completely befuddled by women. The heroine will be highly emotional, a bit high strung, but fortunately very empowered – so much so that she’s leading the hero by the nose. Add in a lot of musing on why the system into which they have to work is so messed up. Unfortunately for the Dragons of Dorcastle, most of the book ponders endlessly on the obvious – both guilds have lied to young Mari and Alain and each has to throw off their indoctrinations.
A full 80% or more of the book felt very inert to me. It didn’t help that the premise of the mage guild is that they are denied all social skills completely, including any emotional expression. So we have a protagonist who is boring, simplistic, and so obviously brainwashed as to be pathetic. Our heroine, Mari, is completely oblivious to even the most obvious of clues about things – so much so that she appears to be reacting purely off the hip and without any kind of consideration of a bigger picture at all. They are both so clueless that it stretches belief too far that they would have survived for even 5 seconds in the situations they are found. It was hard to root for them when you wanted to bang your head on the table every few minutes.
In a way, we don’t have the typically wishy-washy idiotic unique snowflake YA heroes with a soppy and all consuming romance. But in another way, we have really idiotic unique snowflake YA hoes with a soppy and all consuming romance. It doesn’t read like most YA and yet the underpinings are sadly the same. As an example, instead of staring at the guys ‘rippling torso’, we have endless paragraphs of denying that either is attracted to their ‘enemy’. Same obsession, different reasons. Move on.
Far too much of the book is spent on the characters slowly figuring out that the other isn’t an evil gremlin. In between, we have a bunch of kidnappings and a lot of clues that both characters should have figured out early on about what was happening. E.g., if you’ve been kidnapped twice and someone has attempted to murder you even more times, you should probably take the hint that when your guild’s valuables are suddenly taken off a train you were immediately ordered to take, that train probably won’t have a smooth trip. But no – even though it’s figured out in the first 10% that Mechanic Mari is the target of all the mayhem, nothing is done about it after that first attempt and so it keeps on happening and no one seems to wonder why? I didn’t like either Mari or Alain.
I will likely continue the series since I have read all of the Campbell/Hemry books and really like this author’s work. Perhaps now that we have all the ‘worldbuilding’ and endless pondering on the nature of the guilds done, we can get on with a real story. Because truly, those long thought passages work really well on a bigger stage as with the Lost Fleet series but felt very forced on a smaller stage as with the Stark’s War series.
Note that I listened to the Audible version and the narrator did a decent job – but I never warmed up to his reading.