Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Last Dragonlord, by Joanne Bertin [4]


Overall, a very entertaining read here. If you're looking for heroic swordplay or a hard-nosed, kick-butt male protaganist, you won't find it here. Bertin's Linden Rathan is a bit on the sensitive side, and despite songs and stories of his glory, there's no evidence of his mastery with the sword or magic in this particular novel. Bertin presents Linden as a pretty weak character, both mentally and physically (and I don't mean his size, he's weak with sword and magic).

Still, at the heart of The Last Dragonlord, there's something very endearing, very magical about a girl who lands her lifelong hero, even as a guy reading it, I found it very endearing. I couldn't help but fall in love with Captain Maurynna Erdon's character -- she's stubborn, headstrong, not the most beautiful girl but certainly no hunchback, very accomplished, and of course, a fledgling dragonlord.

Joanne Bertin's strengths are obvious. She writes very endearing romantic scenes, compelling female characterizations (Maurynna, Maylin, Tasha, even Sherinne), and some interesting political intrigue. I even found myself laughing out loud on a number of occasions, especially via Bertin's Otter. In general, the tone and prose of the novel conveys a light, fast read.

Bertin's weaknesses? With the exception of Otter, her male characterizations are weak if not uninteresting. Ironic isn't it, since our female heroine finds Linden Rathan the most interesting hero ever. There are some plot holes in the story, but what story is perfect anyway? There are passages from certain characters which doesn't really add to the impetus of the plot, and more or less fractures a disjoint story even more. Bertin tries to set the stage using various, disjoint passages from a wide variety of perspectives, but in the end, they don't add much.

The Story.

The plot blurbs and book inset really doesn't do the story justice. The real story: Dragonlord Linden Rathan is the last dragonlord in a top-ranking society of dragonlords, and the only dragonlord without a soultwin. Dragonlords are an interesting breed, they can change between human and dragon form, they have some magical capabilities, and each is bonded by soul to another of the opposite sex. For over six centuries (or was it 8?) Linden Rathan seeks his soultwin, but without any luck. He's always bitter and jealous when he has to witness other soultwinned dragonlords together. Linden was 28 when he endured his first Change to a dragon and like all dragonlords, he hasn't aged physically over the centuries much since his first Change. Dragonlords also have a very interesting dichotomy: there exists 2 sentient souls in one body, the human soul and the dragon soul. Out of amusement, the dragon soul - though stronger and more powerful - slumbers and is usually content to let the human soul dominate over the body (both in human and dragon form) until the human soul wearies and passes away, leaving the truedragon. A dragon is pretty patient and time has no meaning to them anyway.

The rest is backdrop: Linden is sent by the "Lady" of the Dragonlords to Casna to oversee a conflict of regency after the Queen of Cassori dies as well as her Prince-Consort, leaving a very young boy as the only surviving heir. There exists 2 uncles contending for the interim Regency until the boy comes of age, Peridaen and Duke Beren. Three dragonlords are sent to sit in judgement and prevent civil war. There's plenty of bureaucratic council meetings which hold the 3 dragonlords at Casna for an extended period of time and the rest of the novel. A plethora of political threads are hatched as soon as the dragonlords arrive, delaying their return back to dragonkeep even more.

Along with the bard Otter, Captain Maurynna Erdon, 19, travels on her ship the Sea Mist to Casna's port to deliver her cargo for trade. Descendent from a wealthy merchant family and rising to Captain quickly, she has family in Casna: an aunt, uncle and 2 cousins, Maylin & Kella. Like her younger cousin Maylin, Maurynna has a peculiar marking: mismatched eyes, one blue, the other green. Interestingly enough, Otter is the connection between Linden Rathan and Maurynna, since Otter is friends with both. Although rare for a truehuman, Otter can mindspeak Linden, and asks him if he objects to being introduced to Maurynna in Casna. Otter knows that Dragonlord Linden Rathan has always been Maurynna's hero, you see, and she dreams of meeting him one day. For Maurynna, meeting Linden Rathan would be a dream-come-true and she yearns for that meeting like nothing else. Linden consents to the meeting though he inwardly dreads another meeting another girl fawning over him and his heroics from ages long past.

Unbeknowest to Maurynna, 3 dragonlords -- including her hero Linden Rathan -- are at her destination in Casna to arbitrate the dispute over regency. Otter teases her about a surprise waiting for her, without revealing any details. Maurynna constantly threatens to keelhaul Otter.

While our heroine Maurynna is still en route, Linden mires himself with the most beautiful woman at Cassori court: the Lady Sherrine of Colrane. Our beautiful, young Sherrine has a rather lascivious reputation of picking up and dropping men like flies. No one dumps Sherrine, Sherrine dumps them. Sherrine is daughter to Lady Anstella of Colrane, while Anstella is Peridaen's lover; recall Peridaen is contending for the interim regency. Kas Althume -- Peridaen's "steward" -- plots to have Sherrine in bed with Linden in order to pluck more information about the tightly-wrapped magical abilities of the dragonlords. Althume is not what he seems. A powerful blood mage, Althume aspires to destroying dragonlords once and for all and revives the Fraternity of the Blood, a clandestine cult bent on the supremacy of truehumans and truehumans alone. Anstella, Peridaen and Sherinne are all enlisted in this Fraternity.

Yet-to-be-soultwinned Dragonlord Linden Rathan is quite a catch, you see, with all the young women and ladies vying for his attention and company; even a fleeting, cursory acquaintance would suffice for them. Sherrine strikes just the right cords with Linden and she has Linden snared from the first moment. However, she isn't all that successful in gaining more information about dragonlords and their magic. Linden does manage to hold that information back, but not for long.

While the bureacratic council meetings over the Cassori Regency drag on intolerably, Linden discovers other things outside of the council meetings and outside of his affair with Sherinne. Young Rann - the only survivng Cassori heir - is sickly, pale and emaciated. Healer Tasha has tried fair number of things, none of them working. Duke Beren's wife, Lady Beryl seems to constantly hijack Rann for "lessons." Duke Beren himself is very billigerant towards dragonlords and towards Linden. Linden falls into all the usual traps of outward appearances, and starts suspecting and believing exactly what Althume and Peridaen want him to.

There's a joke in the novel when Linden and Maurynna first meet about how tall, big brutes like Linden usually aren't very bright ("Big and stupid as the day is long."). Not just a joke in Linden's case, even at the climax where it seems like Linden has finally connected all the trails of scheming and all at once, he's still pretty dense. Linden and the dragonlords are, for the entirety of the novel, reacting to the political plots and schemes set in motion, never really commanding any of their own.

When Linden chances upon a place of blood magic in the woods which drives truehumans away, Linden and the other dragonlords don't really do anything about it. Even when Linden returns above that place in the woods as a dragon, and even when Rathan (Linden's dragon soul name) wanted to torch the whole place, Linden prevents it. We're not sure exactly why Linden prevents it, except apparently it may torch some nearby farms. Uh if this place is so deep in the forest as we're led to believe why would there be farms nearby? If this is a place of pure evil blood magic as all the 3 of the dragonlords in Casna agree, shouldn't they mindcall some other dragonlords to watch the place at all times, at the very least? And doesn't Maurynna's dragon soul torch the place in the end anyway? Following Linden's discovery of the place and Rathan's confirmation of its evil, Althume constantly uses that place to sacrifice prostitues in order power a soultrap jewel. Another dragonlord or two called in should have been watching it at the very east. If Sherinne can walk into that Place of Evil at the end, surely =someone= can keep an eye on all the trails leading to it, right?

Throughout the entire novel, we're led to believe that a dragonlord's dragon soul is very dangerous, but then why is all the evidence in the book contrary to that? The dragonsouls have all the right instincts and they never fail to aid when called upon during times of greatest need. When Linden and Maurynna finally mate and Rathan takes over, no one is hurt despite all the warnings to the contrary. And Maurynna hadn't undergone her first Change yet so it was supposedly very dangerous to them both. But they're both fine afterwards. When Althume attacks Dragonlord Tarlna via the soultrap jewel, Tarlna's soultwin Kief isn't strong enough to help. That's when Kief's draconic half Shaeldar awakens and aids him in saving his soultwin Tarlna's life. Again, the draconic being very helpful and having all the right instincts. Obviously, Rathan's original instinct to destroy the Place of Evil Blood Magic was the right one.

Not only is Linden pretty dense, but he's also very weak. He doesn't display any talent for magic or swords despite all the historical stories of him to the contrary. I have no problem with the poisoning plot with Sherinne, leaving Linden incapacited and weak.

It's Linden's weakness during the climactic end I have a huge problem with. After Linden connects many of the dots of the political schemes all in one page, he rushes to the Place of Evil (a place he should have had someone watching at all times to begin with) to stop Althume from sacrificing Rann. All of a sudden, the lingering effects of the poisoning incident many, many days earlier still debilitates Linden, and Linden is too weak to really help. Althume's one guy Pol manages to knock Linden over the head, and Linden doesn't even see it coming. With an unbelievable amount of effort and struggle, Linden manages to kill the unarmed, truehuman Pol with his greatsword. But of course he can't do anything else, he obviously didn't really think things through when he rushed headlong to the Place of the Evil to rescue Rann. He decided against Changing into a dragon first (his reasoning against the Changing makes zero sense, because obviously it helped Maurynna when she arrives there as a dragon later on, and Maurynna has no experience!). During the final climactic scene at the end, Bertin notes that Linden is still weakened from Sherinne's poisoning. By why, didn't it happen weeks before?! Wow. Maurynna has quite the strength then. She swims her way back to Casna after jumping ship in the middle of a storm (and she swims quite a distance from the middle of the sea!), climbs a very steep cliff, almost falls, and she's perfectly fine changing into a dragon for the first time, flying to the Place of Evil, frying a dragauth (ugly beast raised by Althume) before it killed Linden, kills Althume too and then flies away. After Maurynna's dragon soul (Kyrissaean) flies away from the Place of Evil, Linden runs out of the woods to Change so he can subdue Maurynna's draconic soul and bring back Maurynna. But he's too weak to even Change!

I have real trouble believing in all the fabled stories of Linden's heroism; he isn't very smart and he certainly isn't very strong with sword and magic. I understand why an author wouldn't want to make characters seem too powerful, but man, Linden is as weak and dense as they come in this novel. His sole purpose: a big oaf for Maurynna to moon over.

The highlights of the novel obviously belong to Maurynna. She's very fun to read, especially when she's mad at Linden for something. Her anger melts away though every time she's back with him.

I enjoyed Maurynna's first meeting with Linden. Obviously very romantic, as Maurynna mistakes Linden for a dockhand when she arrives in Casna. She calls him an ass and orders him to earn his pay. Linden obliges. Not knowing either one's names, Linden kisses her in the hold of Maurynna's ship, both driven by an intense and inexplicable attraction to one another. Linden later confirms that Maurynna is his soultwin and he's finally found his soultwin after all of these centuries. They meet for the second time at Maurynna's aunt's place when Maurynna drops a coin into a well, wishing to see the dockhand again. Also a very romantic scene there as Maurynna discovers who her dockhand really is -- her lifelong hero, Dragonlord Linden Rathan. Bertin's Otter is in his humorous element here. Later, there's again a very romantic picnic scene on a beach, and again Bertin is in her element. Maurynna can't believe this is happening to her. Maurynna is content, and happy beyond belief to be with Linden. Linden equally so, but Maurynna's dream-come-true to meet with her hero easily overshadows Linden's centuries-long wait for his soultwin.

Sherinne intervenes from here after she discovers that some low-born wench (Maurynna) has stolen Linden away from her. No one dumps Sherrine, Sherrine dumps them. And more, Sherrine actually feels a love for someone (Linden) for the first time in her life. So with her guards in tow, Sherrine hunts down Maurynna's aunt's home demanding to see Maurynna. She injures Maurynna as Linden arrives. After Maurynna is healed by Tasha, the Dutchess Alinya (current ruler of Cassori until the regency is settled) advises Linden to stay away from Maurynna lest he endanger his soultwin even more.

Linden consents and tells Maurynna they can't see each other again. The words rip out Maurynna's heart. Even this part is fun to read, because it really hits home Maurynna's dream to be with Linden. She lashes out Linden, "Then go. Go ur Lady Sherrine, Linden; she's beautiful. Not like me, with my mismatched eyes and calloused hands... It shall be as you wish, Your Grace. Indeed, I never want to see you again," she lied. "Go." She cries herself to sleep.

Later, she takes out her anger on other people for not being able to see Linden. She mutters, "I hate him," over and over but obviously she can't let go of her need, her intense desire, to be with him.

When a Fraternity spy divulges that there's a fledgling dragonlord about and that she's Linden's soultwin, Althume, Peridaen and Anstella are too smart for their own good as they arrive at all the wrong conclusions. Althume assumes Sherrine this soultwin, reasoning that Linden rejected Sherrine in favor of this new girl in order to protect Sherrine. Completely unintentional, and nothing of Linden's doing, but very convenient for Maurynna. Although in a different location, Sherrine has the same wine-colored birthmark as Linden, which seems to lend credence to the fact that she may be a fledgling dragonlord and Linden's soultwin. As tightly-wrapped as dragonlord secrets are, apparently these markings are public knowledge? Okayyy. Althume targets Sherrine for a dragonlord enslavement spell, and without any further investigation into the other girl whatsoever.

When Althume schemes to have Linden drink from Sherrine's Farewell Cup in public, Linden is completely incapacitated, and in the grips of severe pain later on. When he's alone and intercepted by Althume and Pol, Linden spasms in pain and cannot open his eyes. The magical poison mixed in the cup allows Althume to asks questions and control the victim completely, a truth serum if you will. After Althume has learned a great deal of dragonlords' magic, he asks Linden if there's a fledgling dragonlord in Casna. With little resistance, Linden answers, "Yes." Just when Althume is about to ask who this fledgling is (to confirm Sherrine), Maurynna arrives in a frenzy with a dagger in hand. Taking Maurynna for a mature dragonlord, Althume and Pol flee. So Maurynna really saves herself here, and arrives just in the nick of time to prevent Linden from revealing the true identity of the fledgling, because Althume was planning on letting Linden go with the antidote after he had his answers. Maurynna doesn't really know that she's a fledgling, but she really saves herself here even though Bertin would have us believe that otherwise. Before running in on Althume, Pol and Linden in a frenzy, Maurynna was at a ceremony and couldn't get Linden out of her mind. She feels that Linden is in danger somehow, but really it was her that was in danger if Linden revealed the fledgling's name.

After the traumatic poisoning episode, many days pass as Tashsa finally discovers how to purge Linden of the poison. Maurynna is forbidden from seeing Linden during this time. After Tasha purges Linden of the poison, he reverts into a state of self-pity. Again many days pass. Linden is recovering, but he still feels sorry for himself, horrified that he's revealed some important dragonlord secrets.

Again, Maurynna rescues him from this. Maurynna is still bitter towards Linden and Bertin describes this black dog which claws at Maurynna with every thought or mention of Linden, a very enjoyable part to read actually. She hates Linden but she can't get him out of her mind, not for one instant. Maurynna is very direct with Linden when she finally sees him in a pitiful state and gets his attention right away. They make love for the first time, and Linden is unable to control Rathan's intense desire for their soultwin in such a weak state (though shouldn't Rathan be weak too, since they share the same body?). Despite the constant warnings of danger though, neither Linden nor Maurynna die . Again Rathan's instincts prove on the mark, and a very entertaining romantic scene ensues.

The lingering effects of this weakness from the poisoning lasts many days later as Linden's weakness pops up at the worst possible moments, debilitating him into uselessness during the climactic ending.

Really, Maurynna rescues Linden twice. I don't count running in on Althume and Linden during the torturous questioning as an actual rescue. Maurynna saves herself there more than Linden, since Linden was about the reveal the true identity of the fledgling. Maurynna does rescue Linden from the pathetic state of self-pity following the poisoning though, and then of course at the end when Maurynna's dragon soul fries the dragauth about devour Linden.

Linden is too weak to do much of anything and too stupid to root out any political scheming until the very end, and then only in one page all at once.

My other complaint: too many disjoint passages from a wide array of perspectives that didn't add or amount to much, from an older mage trying to protect the soultrap jewel early on, from Beryl, from Rann's nurse, and from Astlana. Many of the passages from Athlume's perspective aimed to make the book a page-turner, imparting a sense of impending doom. But some of them (2 or 3 paragraphs max) didn't really reveal anything and they don't add to the story all that much, other than to fragment the story.

I did enjoy Maylin's perspective, as feisty as she is, and they were significant since they were shared with Maurynna for the most part.

Again, an enjoyable read overall, primarily because its heart lies with Maurynna's characterization, to land the hero of her dreams, her true love, her soultwin, while at the same time coming to terms to her own dragonlord status.

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