Spine of the Dragon by Kevin J. Anderson is an epic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery novel that’s the first volume in the Wake the Dragon series. It revolves around two continents that have been divided via bloodshed for many, many generations. However, when a long-forgotten outside threat returns with the hopes of reawakening an ancient race by slaying a mythological dragon of hatred and spite, the two nations must find a way to put aside their violent differences in order to formulate an alliance to fight this newly arisen peril. However, the dark powers of shifting political allegiances have absolutely no intention for peace and partnership, and would rather bathe the world in chaos and death for ultimate power and superiority rather than reign in goodwilled harmony.
My journey with Spine of the Dragon began in February, shortly after I acquired both it and its sequel, Vengewar, and I finally finished reading it last week. Since I’m a quite the passionate aficionado of adult epic fantasy narratives, they don’t typically take me such a lengthy amount of time to read. My first time reading through A Song of Ice and Fire—four books (at the time) spanning almost 1000 pages each—only took me one week; seven days. But due to the way that Spine of the Dragon unfolded, I found myself struggling to stay engaged with it on numerous occasions. Nonetheless, I was determined to finish because the same aspects that made it a trudge were also some of its most compelling qualities.
There are three main traits that make this novel worth the investment: the awesome depth of the world-building, the constantly shifting political tensions and the intricate web of war that looms from start to finish, and the badass female. Even so, there are a few things that also make it incredibly frustrating and those are the extremely short chapters, the humongous cast of characters and at-times excruciatingly slow pacing, and the depiction of non-white folx.
The world-building is fabulous. The settings are richly detailed and magnificently sweeping, enough to teleport the reader right smack dab into the centre of the specific scene that’s unfolding, whether it is a cave where miner’s work hard to discover blood rubies or a desert town that has been buried by a recent sandstorm. Visually, the atmospheres are exquisite. Additionally, there is a lot of history that helps to create a mosaic of context for the war that eventually arrives at everyone’s doorstep, whether they wanted it or not. When a fantasy story is crafted with such great care and attention to detail, it makes me super excited to dive into it and to learn every facet of it as much as I can. The depth of this historical context is one of the main driving forces behind my determination to finish rather than DNF (not finish) this book.
Because there is already quite a plethora of tensions between the kingdoms on one continent and the enemy on a separate continent, the belief for what is best for the people of the realm changes with each ruler. Some believe in utilising the power of peace to create a unitarily thriving world, while others hold on to their blood lost and spilled as tightly as they can and seek the worst sort of vengeance possible. These conflicting perspectives reach a peak of confusion and shifty allegiances when a brand-new threat arises with the intent to destroy everything that they find to be beneath them. I love A Song of Ice and Fire because the political tension is taut and fierce and unforgiving and absolutely brutal. Witnessing the set-up that takes place in Spine of the Dragon for a similar sort of savagery with respect to war and power usurpation had me practically salivating from chapter to chapter. If only the pacing wasn’t so godawful and the chapters weren’t so damn short, I feel I would have enjoyed the build-up far more than I did by its end.
Most chapters are approximately three to five pages if that. They are just long enough to give the reader a taste of that specific character’s perspective and plight before it quickly passes on towards the next. Because of this, I never had proper time to truly invest myself into any one character or side of the fight. The abrupt nature of their presence also created a massive discord between me and the big, astonishing moments that eventually do occur in the story, leaving them quite lacklustre and anticlimactic. If the chapters were longer and contained more developed and thoughtful craftsmanship of the particular individual, situation, or circumstance that was unfolding, I honestly feel it would have made the story that much stronger and more cohesive as a single work of “politically-charged” fantasy. As it stands, I never truly felt the ambiance of the “charged” part of the political strife, which was quite a let-down.
Additionally, the novel has a huge cast of characters that are introduced, again, very similar to A Song of Ice and Fire. But since the chapters are so short, eventually a lot of these characters start to blend together into one entity, and it becomes challenging to differentiate the Konag from the King (different leadership positions). Even their personalities become indecipherable due to how vastly identical their beliefs, attitudes, and way of speech are. This was another quite frustrating aspect of Spine of the Dragon. The only people who were truly defined are the ancient race of beings that arrive to cause havoc and mayhem in a world they’re credited with creating, and the female characters, all of whom are fiercely badass in their own ways. When the large cast is combined with the uselessly succinct chapters, it makes for an excruciatingly slow-paced reading experience. For example, after reading twenty chapters, the plot only moved forward to the equivalent of taking two or three steps forward. There are one hundred one chapters in Spine of the Dragon and I’m sure that with a better developed narrative structure that number could easily be ground down to seventy five or even sixty and would have been more enthralling because of it.
Now, with that being said, I do believe the short chapters will be appealing to some readers. Shorter chapters can make a book feel like it’s unfolding faster, physically speaking, and it also makes it easier to read if someone has limited time to pick up lengthier books such as this. So, while I had my own personal issues with them, I do respect what they can do for other readers. Narratively speaking, however, they may not have been the best way to go.
The only other really big issue that I had with Spine of the Dragon are the ancient beings—the wreths—that are portrayed as the main villains against humanity. They are essentially described as power-hungry, ruthless people of colour who are trying to oppress and enslave the white masses. Even the tribal race of humans are depicted as being white. There are two distinct kinds of wreths. One is described has having fair skin, almond eyes, and long hair—very much akin to East Asian folx. The other group are brown-skinned with almond eyes and long dark hair—akin to Western Asians. The distinction of their POC characteristics is not subtle either. I’m really sick and tired of reading books where non-white people are depicted as being villains and savage, uncivilised killers who view themselves as “superior.” It’s either that, or we’re savage and uncivilised slaves who are just as hungry for spilling blood and guts. It’s super fucking racist and one-hundred-percent unnecessary, especially in a climate where we are getting more than enough hatred and violence shoved down our faces for just being who we are.
Overall, Spine of the Dragon is not a bad book. It’s not a great book, or even a very good book as a whole, but it’s not bad. It’s very much a first book that is the typical foundation-creation type of novel. It’s laying down all of the groundwork for the action and blood-splattering mayhem to come. The last one-fourth of Spine of the Dragon does a decent job of giving the reader a taste of some of the violence and chaos to that shall ensue in the sequel, which I’ve heard is jam-packed with tons of action, which the series definitely needs at this point. I would mildly recommend this to fantasy readers who are interested in deeply meticulous world-building and don’t mind a story that won’t truly take-off and show its (possible) potential until the following instalment(s). Just know that it’s not without its share of the problematic. Once I read the sequel, I can give a much better recommendation on the series as a single entity.
Publication Date: June 2019
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery
Series: Wake the Dragon Book 1
Page Count: 528
Content Warnings: Physical violence. Moderate sexual violence. Death including death of loved ones, mass death, death via cave-in, and death of children. Animal death (one scene of graphic animal slaughter; rest are mentioned passingly). Blood. Gore. Body mutilation. Graphic Rape (on-page of women and a man). Torture of prisoners. Attempted regicide. Forced amnesia. Enslavement. Child abuse. Racism. Sexism and misogyny. Classism. Religious oppression. Sexual intercourse (brief, on-page). Alcohol consumption. Preparation and consumption of food.
GoodReads: Spine of the Dragon by Kevin J. Anderson