Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Kate Forsyth


Dragonclaw is set in Eileanan, a kind of fantasy version of Scotland. It's a landscape of hills, valleys and deep lochs, peopled with magical creatures as well as regular humans. Isabeau and her guardian, an old wood-witch called Meghan, live in an isolated valley in one of the more idyllic parts of this world. But their life of gathering herbs and talking to animals is about to be interrupted. Witchcraft is a crime punishable by death, and the reach of the country's witch-finders is long.

Almost everyone in this world speaks with a thick Scottish accent and uses a lot of that country's dialect. There's a plausible reason for it, but that doesn't make this novel any more legible. It's strange that the author has everyone talking with an accent, when it's the same accent. Usually a peculiar way of speaking is a short way of showing that a character has foreign origins, or is separated from everyone else by class. But when everyone's language is the same, these accents just make things harder to read without telling us anything about the characters.

The story is essentially about a struggle against persecution. The land of Eileanan was full of magic users until sixteen years ago, when Maya the Unknown married the Rígh (sort of a king), and became Banrígh. Towers of Sorcery were pulled down, witches were executed or exiled, the princes disappeared, magical creatures were hunted and killed, and the Red Guard became an instrument of terror. Witches were forced into hiding, living in constant fear of being rooted out by witch-sniffers who are able to detect magic when it's used. One small glimmer of hope emerged, in the form of a mysterious figure known as The Cripple. He seems to be something of a Scarlet Pimpernel for witches.

Dragonclaw is one of those long, sprawling fantasies which follows a number of characters as they trek across the country on a quest to find the solution to their problems. As the name suggests, there are dragons. There are also a host of other monsters and part-human creatures, mostly original creations of the author's. If anything, this book has too many different fantastic beings, and too many characters. After a while their strangeness fails to impress, because no matter how odd their outward appearances may be they all possess pretty much the same bland personality traits. They also tend to befriend Isabeau very easily, whether or not she does anything to deserve it.

The book suffers from fairly clumsy writing, and in places it can be a laboured affair full of long, loving descriptions of landscape. The villains are sometimes too obvious and too bad to be really exciting. In spite of the array of novel fantasy creatures, the setting is quite trite and the plot predictable. However, it maintains a reasonable pace most of the time, with occasional flashes of feisty, adventurous storytelling. If you can look past the faults it's possible to enjoy Dragonclaw as pure escapism. And if that's what you're after the ending promises much more to come, since this book is clearly the beginning of a long series rather than a story that stands complete on its own.

However this is not a book to recommend for nitpickers. It's fantasy by numbers, without much attention to detail. The theme of persecution tends to suggest that this will be a deep and thoughtful story, but it doesn't quite get there. Dragonclaw is readable, but it lacks the unique personalities and original style that would make it truly compelling.

Book Details

Decade: 1990s

Categories: Books

  Female Protagonist  

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Review © Ros Jackson