Brightfall by Jaime Lee Moyer

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 59 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

In the middle of the greenwood stood an oak, broad as it was tall, with roots the Fae believed wrapped around the heart of the world. People on the farms outside Sherwood still told tales abut that tree; most called it Robin’s Oak. Few spinning takes about Robin and Marian’s adventures knew I shared a cottage there with my children. Much as it pained Robin to claim Kate and Robbie, they were his children too. Only a few close friends and the monks in St Mary’s knew he’d left us on our own almost twelve years ago.

That’s the first paragraph of Brightfall by Jaime Lee Moyer. I’m Erika Ensign, and this is Recently Read.

Having loved Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia Martin series, which starts with Delia’s Shadow, I was excited to pick up this new novel, even though it’s not remotely related to the events in that series.

This book is a poignant take on the aftermath of the Robin Hood myth, told from Marian’s point of view. It’s roughly 18 years since the events popularized in story and song, and, as you may have gathered from the first paragraph, it’s been 12 years since Robin left Marian and their two unborn children, had the marriage annulled, and retired to Friar Tuck’s abbey.

Yeah. Bit of a twist right off the bat there.

Also, Marian is a witch. She knows magic, can contact the Fae, and even has a Great Dragon for a friend. I love every one of these elements.

The action in the book gets started when Abbot Tuck comes to visit to ask for Marian’s help. Several of their friends of old have died in mysterious circumstances — including, most recently, Will Scarlet, who is Marian’s lover and has raised her children with her for more than a decade.

She’s heartbroken at losing her love and partner, and equally appalled when she learns that Little John’s 11-year old son Ethan is one of the poor souls to die from what Tuck believes must be a curse. And because it’s a curse, Marian is the only one who can figure out who cast it and how to stop them. He begs her to journey to the scenes of the crimes and pull the threads to solve the mystery and — more importantly — stop the killings.

So Marian sets out to try to save the day. Unfortunately, Tuck has set Robin of Sherwood himself the task of protecting her on the journey. Neither of them are pleased about the situation, though they do gain a few colourful, and truly fantastic, companions along the way.

That’s the setup, and I won’t say much more about the plot, but I will leave you with a word of caution. If you’re looking for a swashbuckling Robin Hood story with a lot of lighthearted fun and banter, this is definitely not that. Brightfall is a fairly dark story about wrestling with grief, making tough choices, doing what must be done because nobody else can do it, and coming to terms with loss and change.

And it deals with these things very well. So if you’re in a place for a serious examination of life and loss through the lens of a strong but tired middle-aged woman of power, this is absolutely the story for you.

And, like I said, it’s got faeries and dragons, which for me is always a win.

I’m Erika Ensign, and this has been Recently Read.

 

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's Dragon: A Novel of Temeraire by Naomi Novik - a black dragon wrapped around a picture of a naval sailing ship hangs in front of a red and black background

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 39 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

The Deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea; a stroke might as easily bring down the man making it as the intended target. Laurence did not have time in the heat of the battle to be surprised at the degree of resistance, but even through the numbing haze of battle-fever and the confusion of swords and pistol-smoke, he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain’s face as the man shouted encouragement to his men.

That’s the first paragraph of His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. In the midst of reading lots of current books for awards season, I decided I needed two things: a break and dragons. I enjoyed Novik’s novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver, and I’d heard good things about her Temeraire series.

Those good things proved true.

The briefest description of this book could be “Napoleonic war with dragons” because that’s exactly what it is. It’s an alternate history in which dragons exist on Earth and have been bred and used in warfare for hundreds of years. I generally don’t care for alternate history, but I really really like dragons, so I decided to give this a shot. I’m glad I did because I quite like these dragons. There are many breeds of differing size and capabilities. Some breathe fire, others acid, and all of them are deadly in the art of aerial warfare.

The dragon at the centre of this book is named Temeraire, and he enters the story shortly after the battle described in the first paragraph. The British captain, Laurence, discovers the French frigate he captured was carrying a large dragon egg. That egg is now England’s. But there’s a big complication: it will hatch weeks before they can get back to land. This presents a problem, as the Aerial Corps is a very different branch of the armed forces. Dragon aviators are trained from youth; they’re a group apart, and as such, they’re looked down upon by pretty much everyone else (not only the military, but society at large). The officers must draw lots to see who will attempt to harness the dragonet. In the event, the dragon bonds with Laurence, which means he must leave the navy and everything and everyone he knows to train for a totally new type of military profession.

I enjoy a good fish-out-of-water story (and I’m not talking about Temeraire fishing for his supper until they can reach dry land). Laurence is an officer and a gentleman and his struggle to acclimate to the much-more-relaxed and informal and wrinkled world of the Aerial Corps makes for an entertaining and engrossing read. This is easily the part of the book I liked best (besides the dragons themselves, of course).

I appreciate the thought Novik gave to just how dragons would be integrated (or not integrated) into society and warfare—though it’s the society angle that gripped me most. It reminded me a lot of Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series in that the dragons and their crews provide a valuable service, but most of society looks askance at them. Also, dragons are able to speak immediately and bond with their riders upon hatching, though it’s not the same type of deep, telepathic bond as in McCaffery’s books—these dragons can (and do) take new riders when required. Another similarity: a certain type of dragon only bonds with women, which is a nifty way of working in some modern gender politics. Well-respected and easily-accepted female captains are just as awesome as the dragons are and, compared to the contemporary society, feel just about as fictional.

Speaking of contemporary society, the language in this book feels like a throw-back to that time. It is very formal and occasionally florid. I’m impressed by Novik’s ability to write in this voice while still keeping it accessible to a modern reader like me (someone who doesn’t always go in for period-style writing). Though I will admit the stiff formality of the language and phrasing did slow me down a little bit. It was a minor, added layer of difficulty that I mostly didn’t mind overcoming in order to get through the story.

The bigger obstacle for me was the fact that in the end, this is a war novel. I enjoyed the beginning of the book much more than the latter bits. I liked watching Laurence learn the ropes and deepen his friendship with Temeraire, but eventually they’ve been trained, and it’s time to go into battle. Even in visual media, battle sequences bore me, so while the battles were well-conceived and well-written, I found myself drifting as I read them. I’m not certain I’ll continue on with Throne of Jade (the next book in the series), because I suspect the subsequent books may be even more war-novelly than His Majesty’s Dragon. That said, I am glad I picked up this one and made the acquaintance of these lovely dragons.